ATA’s May says NextGen benefits should become a national priority

 - March 27, 2009, 12:11 PM

Air Transport Association president and CEO James May suggested last month that if the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is fast-tracked like the Interstate Highway System was a half century ago, many of the promised benefits could be fully operational within five years.

“It’s time for this nation to declare an infrastructure priority much like the Eisenhower Administration did with the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s,” he told the House aviation subcommittee. “If we did this in the 1950s for the highways, why can’t do it for aviation?”

May ticked off a list of NextGen building blocks already proven and ready to deploy, including ADS-B, Rnav, RNP, electronic display upgrades (such as EFB), ground-based augmentation systems and “for my friends in the GA community” localizer performance with vertical guidance.

Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, during whose term at the agency NextGen planning began in earnest, said equipage of aircraft is “the long pole in the tent” in hastening near-term benefits.

“The benefits of NextGen are closer than most think,” said Blakey, who is now president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “I spend a lot of time advocating for NextGen. People are always surprised when I tell them that NextGen implementation has already begun, with 11 ADS-B ground stations installed, commissioned and in use in South Florida.”

All 793 stations are on schedule to be installed across the country by 2013. While aircraft are not required to be equipped with ADS-B avionics until 2020, Congress could provide incentives for users to install the equipment before that deadline. This would allow users to take early advantage of the benefits of NextGen.

Blakey said that more funding is needed for RNP and Rnav before “critical mass” can be reached and benefits of ADS-B and NextGen can be realized. Asked by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) how to get NextGen “off center,” General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO Pete Bunce responded, “Tell the FAA to come back to you with an incentive plan for equipage.”

Although a broad coalition of aviation industry groups lobbied Congress to put $4 billion in February’s $787 billion stimulus bill to make grants for 100 percent of the costs to retrofit commercial and general aviation with NextGen equipment, House aviation subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) said, “You failed to make your case.”

But he held out a glimmer of hope that such a proposal could be included in a second stimulus bill. “It is necessary to implement it in a meaningful way,” Costello added.
May, who has often been at odds with the business aviation community, pointed out in his written testimony that the current FAA plan does not produce significant benefits for the traveling and shipping public or for system users until 2025.

“For system users–airlines, business aviation and general aviation–this delay presents a special problem,” he said. “The plan contemplates significant stakeholder investment, in addition to FAA investment, but no real benefit for many years. Without a timely return on investment, there is little incentive for airlines and other users to invest in new equipment and training. In short, the current FAA plan does not make a strong business case.”

May postulated that airlines, air taxis, charter operators and corporate aircraft owners have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and owners to achieve a reasonable return on their investment in this context, just as they do with respect to any other major capital expense.

“There is a real and achievable solution, and that is to advance to the point in time when the investment in NextGen begins to pay off for both the public and vested stakeholders,” said May. “If the public and aviation stakeholders begin to realize the benefits in a few years instead of 10 or more, then the NextGen business case improves dramatically.”