RTCA report is a blueprint for NextGen

 - October 22, 2009, 11:15 AM

A tectonic shift in the rulemaking practice of the FAA occurred, almost unnoticed, on January 16 of this year. Before that date, the agency would introduce and then implement equipage plans and procedures–TCAS, RVSM, TAWS, ADS-B were examples–that it felt were timely for the aviation community. Industry comments were always invited, but everyone knew that the basic plans and their introduction dates wouldn’t change much. There was a sort of “Father knows best” flavor to the process. And in fairness, in most cases, he did.

But in January, the FAA recognized that the old approach wouldn’t work for a project of the size, complexity and potentially massive cost to operators of NextGen, especially in these troubled financial times.

So it was on that date that FAA ATO COO Hank Krakowski asked RTCA–an independent not-for-profit government advisory group specializing in aviation technologies–to establish a government-industry task force “to forge community-wide consensus on the recommended NextGen operational improvements to be implemented during the transition between now and 2018.” The Task Force was also asked to focus on “maximizing NextGen benefits and facilitating the development of the business case for industry investment.”
In short, the FAA intends to have industry select, from the vast buffet of NextGen’s proposed concepts, those that offered early operational benefits with minimum operator investment, with the aim of providing a future performance-based “bridge” to the full-blown NextGen of the 2020s.

The Task Force presented its report to the FAA early last month and provided a public briefing one week later. In keeping with its urgency, the task force introduced NowGen Next as the initiative’s new name, to emphasize industry’s readiness to move out and get the show on the road.

Space prevents more than just a skeletal review of its contents here, but basically the 182-page report breaks down into several specific equipage and procedural recommendations in each of the five critical flight-operations domains: surface movement; runway access; metroplex operations; cruise flight and access to the NAS, along with background discussion of the reasons supporting each recommendation. In addition, there were two recommendations that cut across and affect all five domains–data communications and integrated air traffic management–again with a discussion on their application.

Finally, the task force made two overarching recommendations it considers critical to the success of implementing the basic recommendations. These were the achievement of three- and five-mile separation standards and the development of methods to encourage equipage, whether by financial, legislative or introduction of the “best equipped, best served” concept to ATC. Importantly, however, the criteria used in developing a realistic set of recommendations within the five basic domains assumed that no such incentives would be provided. If they did materialize, they would be a bonus in encouraging further equipage.

NBAA Participation
How were the domain and related recommendations chosen? The task force was composed of more than 300 volunteer specialists representing a broad spectrum of the aviation industry, with particularly active participation by staff of NBAA. Steve Brown, NBAA senior vice president allayed concerns that the task force recommendations would be heavily influenced by airline interests, telling the public meeting that the overriding theme of the task force was aircraft capabilities, which applied equally to the airlines, corporate aviation and the military.

In the development of the recommendations, participants were divided into several subgroups that concentrated on specific flight phases and, after reviewing virtually every project in the FAA NextGen plan that affected their assigned phases, closely examined those that showed promise. Each one of these was subjected to a series of rigorous assessments in terms of benefits, costs, readiness and risks to their adoption over the next three to five years. (AIN was informed that the shorter period, rather than extending to 2018, recognized that technologies, procedures and priorities could slowly change over time.)

FAA Green Light
The task force also assessed two other criteria. One was that of determining where the most urgent requirement for each recommendation occurs today–for example, ground delays at specific major airports–along with one or more operators who would commit to invest in the implementation of the recommendation to help solve the problem. (Not surprisingly, after the bad publicity about long waits on the ramp, many airlines made that commitment to the task force.) The other was the assessment of the effect of the “best equipped, best served” concept on the application of each recommendation."

Perhaps predictably, long-time observers of the FAA are tempted to regard all this as yet another high-powered exercise in déjà vu. There have been a few of these
in the past and, indeed, the task force acknowledges that operators could be apprehensive about the agency’s response to the report and its adoption of its recommendations. So it seems appropriate to quote an extract from FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt’s remarks as the opening speaker at the task force public meeting:

“I’ve flown enough to know that NextGen is a success story waiting to happen. We need to advance well beyond the preliminaries. We as a group need to commit together to giving it the juice it needs. Lest there be any doubt, I’m making that commitment for the FAA right here, right now. And I have the support of the Secretary [of Transportation] and the President. They want this up and running, and they are fully supportive. The green light can’t get any greener than that.”
Encouraging words, indeed. Still, those who can’t completely shake that déjà vu feeling may find it prudent to poke the odd FAA bureaucrat from time to time for a progress report.

Copies of the report, titled “NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report, September 9, 2009,” can be downloaded from the RTCA Web site at www.rtca.org at the non-member rate of $260. It is not available through the FAA.