U.S. and Europe take different tacks on next-generation ATM

 - October 31, 2008, 11:33 AM

A September ICAO NextGen/Sesar Forum in Montreal underscored the fact that the U.S. and Europe are following different paths to a future air traffic management system. Officials managing the FAA’s NextGen and Europe’s Sesar–for Single European Sky ATM Research–agree that by 2025 traffic is expected to double, and maybe even triple, and that today’s control systems will not be able to handle the increase. There is also broad consensus that a satellite- and performance-based environment will be the way of the future. But the way that the two organizations are going about their business is quite different.

The old political saw of “follow the money” applies While NextGen’s shape and direction have been determined through consultation with industry and various government bodies–including non-aviation entities such as the Department of Homeland Security–it is ultimately an FAA program, with its progress depending almost entirely on the will of Congress and its appropriations committees. And while legislators have so far been positive about the need to renew the nation’s ATC system, occasionally citing the future promise of satellites, 4-D trajectories and similar marvels, the political crunch can be expected to come when the current plans start to collide with possible future realities of, say, consolidating today’s nationwide 20 ARTCCs into one or two, or introducing rules that politically influential parts of the aviation community strongly oppose.

Sesar, on the other hand, appears to be clear of political restraints, and seems much more operationally driven. Here, the money trail splits into three equal parts, respectively supported by the European Community (EC) on the political side, and by Eurocontrol and the broad aviation industry on the operational side. What’s more, while the EC primarily values Sesar for the air transportation improvements it will produce, it also recognizes the economic benefits of new technology research and production that will accrue to European industry.

Unquestionably, NextGen’s progress has been slower than that of Sesar, which is why, according to FAA insiders, the formerly independent Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) activity was brought under direct FAA control earlier this year.

One measure of the relative progress of the two programs is indicated in their respective Integrated Work Plans (IWPs) that describe specific future goals. The FAA’s IWP, released after the ICAO Forum, is 197 pages long, but presented in a somewhat complex format. Sesar’s IWP, released late last year, is much more reader friendly, and its 483 pages delve into the finer details. With this technique, designed to achieve optimum runway throughput, the pilot inserts the required runway exit into the FMS while on final and the automation takes it from there, applying brakes and adjusting power to reach the selected exit at precisely the correct turnoff speed. The capability is already installed on the Airbus A380.

Interoperability Remains a Distant Goal
At the forum, Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell said, “For years we’ve viewed these programs in terms of who gets there first.” While that may have been true within the FAA, European ATC officials have indicated to AIN that while both programs were moving in a similar direction, Europe was unquestionably marching to the beat of its own drummer.

However, forum presentations by Next-Gen and Sesar representatives were not confrontational, and they and forum spokesmen from other nations with strong aviation interests agreed that international harmonization and interoperability must be the overriding goal.

Despite the generally upbeat tone of the forum, presentations from the Airports Council International (ACI) and the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) revealed challenges planners on both sides of the Atlantic have yet to address.

Angela Gittens, director general of ACI’s World group, pointed out that airspace planners were not paying sufficient attention to the vital need for more runways and the associated expansion of an airport’s total infrastructure, including ramp space, gates, passenger and baggage handling facilities and road access. These involved extensive, multi-year projects with multibillion-dollar costs, and Gittens’ concern was that unless these projects were not started soon, many of the expected airspace benefits could be negated. Noting that Sesar predicted a doubling of traffic by 2025, she said it was difficult to imagine a doubling of European airport capacity by that date.

Gittens added that future new runways might have to be built as closely spaced parallels within an airport’s current boundaries, which could call for significant reductions in approach separations. Consequently, she urged ICAO to recognize in its planning the key part that airport capacity would play in the total future air transportation system.

IBAC director and ICAO liaison Peter Ingleton took a different tack. He pointed out that by last year there were already more than 28,000 turbine-powered business aircraft worldwide, whose operators supported enhancements to safety, increases in capacity and efficiency and protection of the environment. To that end, the IBAC CNS/ATM Working Group had been established as a business aviation industry advisory group that included corporate operators and airframe and avionics OEMs. The group’s objective was to coordinate industry CNS/ ATM planning and implementation.

Ingleton noted that there is much to be done, particularly on the path to true interoperability, which is still a distant goal. Regional, and sometimes even national, differences in specific approvals, in unique procedures, in equipage and their functionalities, and in operator approvals, remain obstacles on the path to interoperability. Each of these, Ingleton stated, has crew training and proficiency implications, and all have the potential to compromise safety. He suggested that since “interoperability” is so commonly misinterpreted, the antidote, as he put it, would be to adopt the more specific term “universal and seamless” as its replacement.