Government enlists industry input on future of NextGen

 - March 27, 2009, 12:10 PM

After many months of apparent silence, there is action on the NextGen front. But the program is progressing in a way that is different from most previous FAA initiatives. On January 30, the agency released its NextGen Implementation Plan, covering the “mid term” from 2012 to 2018. The FAA stated the plan had two purposes. First, it would broadly outline the system’s architecture and, second, it would “provide a springboard for a new level of engagement with the aviation community on NextGen equipage. This dialogue will be critical for achieving benefits and return on investment for both the community and the government.”

The plan avoids examining NextGen’s immensely complex architecture and instead aims at answering five fundamental questions:

• What will NextGen look like in 2018?

• What benefits will NextGen deliver in the mid term?

• What are the aircraft avionics needs through 2018?

• What is the FAA specifically committed to deploy in the near term that makes the most of existing resources?

• What activities are under way to support future capabilities?

Breaking with tradition, the FAA is asking the aviation community to help answer these questions. To accomplish this, the agency asked RTCA, a private, not-for-profit corporation that serves as a Federal Advisory Committee, to establish a NextGen Implementation Task Force, to consider these issues and report its findings by the end of August. RTCA makes recommendations on air traffic management and avionics based on the consensus of several hundred expert volunteers from a wide spectrum of U.S. and overseas aviation interests.

The task force membership, representing 24 separate organizations–of which only the FAA, NASA and the DOD are government agencies–held its first meeting on February 11, at which NBAA air traffic services director Bob Lamond and Northwest Airlines’ Lorne Cass presented their review of the FAA’s plan. Lamond and Cass also serve on RTCA’s long established Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee and worked with FAA officials during the plan’s drafting process.

Lamond told AIN, “NBAA is excited about participating in this effort to increase capacity, efficiency and safety in the NAS. Our focus will be on recommending capabilities providing the greatest benefit in airspace and airport access.” At the same time, he emphasized that association members were especially interested in short- term solutions to “maximize equipment already installed in aircraft or on the ground that are underutilized due to a lack of procedures, policy or certification paths.”

The task force accepted the Lamond/Cass recommendation that the group split its assignment into two working groups–operational capabilities and business strategies–with the combined objective of reaching consensus on capabilities and strategic investments by 2018. Recommendations also included defining responsibility, authority and accountability (RAA) for all elements of NextGen over its journey to 2018. Longtime observers of the FAA scene agree that the lack of a well-defined RAA has been at the root of the difficulties in some of the agency’s past programs.

Unquestionably, this new government/ industry initiative holds real promise, but it also draws attention to its urgency. While the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) did extensive work on NextGen’s foundation and architecture, it appeared to pay less attention to the hard operational issues facing the task force. As one task force member observed to AIN, “This is our last chance to get it right.”

Yet long-time observers still have one unanswered question. Who carries the ball after the task force submits its report on August 31? Asserted one, “That must be clearly defined, and soon. Industry should be officially charged with monitoring FAA’s NextGen progress through 2018, and beyond.”