FAA video outlines NextGen plans

 - September 24, 2008, 5:40 AM

Everybody in aviation has heard about NextGen, the buzzterm that stands for the ponderous Next Generation Air Transportation System. But what is it, exactly? Ask 10 people and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. And don’t ask the popular media or tv or a politician: all they’ll tell you is that it’s “satellite-based” and coming soon. So the FAA’s latest video, released in July on the agency’s Web site (www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/reauthorization/nextGenVideos) and titled “NextGen,” provides a welcome explanation. Previous versions the agency produced are still on the site, but this one is the best so far.

And thankfully, it isn’t one of those eye-glazing “everything you wanted to know” efforts that overwhelms the viewer with so much information he forgets the important bits. In its 13-minute running time, “NextGen” reviews the system’s background, looks at today’s congestion and the predicted increases in traffic by 2025, and describes the major elements of the future system and their respective benefits in basic terms.

Most pilots, of course, have a pretty good understanding of NextGen’s more familiar elements–GPS, ADS-B, Rnav, RNP–but they might be a bit hazy on the details of things like Swim (for system wide information management), and network-enabled weather, data communications and ASDE-X (for airport surface detection equipment, Model X). While less apparent in everyday flight operations, these will also be key elements in NextGen, and the video broadly explains them and shows how they fit into the overall plan.

But a dark horse–enhanced vision systems–also snuck itself in. Among the starring cast of named FAA and industry players, whose faces perhaps few of us have seen before, is FAA safety czar Nick Sabatini advising the audience about the benefits of infrared enhanced vision systems. There is also a neat clip of a HUD/EVS approach into Aspen. Great stuff. Except that it isn’t one of NextGen’s basic elements and, as far as AIN knows, the FAA doesn’t plan to mandate its carriage. On the other hand, showing the video to the company chairman might usefully evoke the question of why he doesn’t have one in his airplane.

“NextGen” production values get mixed ratings. The photography is generally excellent, but one wished the director had cut the parts where the action was speeded up: a takeoff scene of two aircraft departing on close parallel runways looks like a drag race, and a follow-on landing scene has a small aircraft apparently approaching and touching down at something close to Vne.

The computer graphics could also have used some pilot input to ensure accuracy: airplanes just don’t make instant flat turns, or leave their gear down while cruising. But these are minor nitpicks. “NextGen” still gets a couple of thumbs up, due to a quite brilliant comment from Hank Krakowski, COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

With a black-and-white movie of a vintage three-engine passenger biplane in the background, he mused, “When I think about NextGen, it’s kind of like back to the future, and I think about the 1920s. Then, pilots would load up their passengers, load their bags, take off when they wanted, fly exactly the route, altitude and speed they wanted, land at the destination, have no delay getting to the gate and never talk to anybody. To a degree, that’s what we’re trying to do with NextGen.”

For all the tens of thousands of words written and spoken about NextGen, there has surely never been a clearer statement of the system’s objectives.