DOT urges patience on NextGen avnx

 - November 24, 2009, 10:31 AM

Plans to jump-start NextGen equipage by giving preferential treatment for installation of new avionics systems will fundamentally alter the FAA’s “first-come, first-served” mantra for providing ATC services, according to Department of Transportation inspector general Calvin Scovel III.

He was referring to the September final report by the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force, which said the government can encourage equipage by providing operational incentives (such as better routings and reduced delays), streamlining the process required to take advantage of new equipage and/or providing financial benefits.

“While financial incentives to accelerate equipage would be welcome by stakeholders,” the task force wrote, “the failure to do all else necessary to provide operational benefits would yield no improvements in NAS performance and, hence, no return on the government’s investment.”

But Scovel cautioned, “The details of such a policy would need to be developed to ensure equity among users and implementation at specific locations.” Testifying before the House aviation subcommittee, he said the costs, benefits and milestones for the mid-term remain uncertain.

“Our work shows that the FAA has not fully laid the groundwork for key capabilities, such as Rnav/RNP, or established firm requirements for existing new acquisitions that can translate into reliable cost and schedule baselines,” he added.

Noting that “a considerable level of oversight is needed for NextGen,” Scovel said aviation subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) and ranking Republican member Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) have asked him to monitor the FAA’s progress in responding to the task force’s recommendations and corresponding impacts on FAA budgets and plans.

According to Scovel, several actions are needed now to set realistic expectations for NextGen, including:
•    developing plans to initiate action and establish a five-year funding profile for the NextGen mid-term; creating metrics for assessing progress, measuring benefits and identifying problems to put in place timely corrective actions;
•    refining how a “best-equipped, best-served” policy could be implemented; and
•    developing and implementing a strategy for linking near- and mid-term efforts with NextGen long-term plans for its major transformational programs, such as ADS-B.

RTCA president Margaret Jenny told lawmakers that the task force emphasized the importance of implementing operational capabilities versus technologies, and deriving benefits from existing equipage. This approach, she said, will help relieve congestion and delays today, while increasing the community’s confidence in the FAA’s ability to implement NextGen.

It also focused on implementing solutions where the problems are most acute, resulting in an airport-centric approach to NextGen and delivering capabilities at the key airports and large metropolitan areas. “If New York sneezes, the nation’s air transportation system gets a cold,” Jenny said. “If Chicago gets a cold, the air transportation system can get pneumonia.”

Rather than deploying infrastructure throughout the entire system first and then implementing operational capabilities that deliver user benefits, the task force recommended implementing targeted operational capabilities at specific locations aimed at keeping the entire system healthy.

Jenny testified that the task force recommendations solve real and current problems while laying the necessary groundwork for the longer-term NextGen. “They are, in effect, the risk-mitigation program for NextGen,” she said.
Air Transport Association president and CEO James May said that the federal government holds the keys to making NextGen a reality sooner rather than later. “This must be a national priority, to which all necessary resources must be devoted,” he testified in late October. “Government leadership and full funding can make it happen in several years, not in the third decade of this century as is assumed today.”

May said leadership means a serious commitment to infrastructure investment, and he likened financial incentives applied to equipping aircraft to infrastructure investment on the ground. “To place this in perspective, were Congress to provide a level of funding comparable to its funding for high-speed rail projects in this year’s stimulus legislation, NextGen would be an early reality,” he suggested.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen, who also serves as chairman of the RTCA, told the congressional panel that while the term NextGen is widely used, it is important to note that “NowGen” was an important focus of the report.

“The report reflects the desire of stakeholders to use the existing equipment on aircraft today that has produced little or no return on investment,” he said. “By accomplishing these near-term tasks, the FAA has an opportunity to earn industry confidence and enhance the commitment to future NextGen efforts.”