Administrative ‘hiccup’ blamed for ADS-B delay

 - March 31, 2010, 5:44 AM

Just as ADS-B was turning into the home stretch, with the FAA announcement of the final rule for mandatory equipage expected on April 10–a date agency officials informally but confidently predicted over the past 12 months–several unrelated events have occurred to upset that forecast. That said, it’s important to add that
the separate effects of those events will certainly neither cancel nor significantly change the overall direction of the agency’s ADS-B program, since the basic initiative is too fundamental a part of NextGen and parallel activities overseas.

The early April date has certainly slipped until the middle of next month, with some industry observers suggesting even that could be optimistic. The reason for this delay is that before any final rule affecting the public can be announced, it must be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), whose task is to ensure that new regulations have a supportable long-term financial plan. The FAA has no concerns about the viability of the plan; the delay arises from an administrative hiccup that prevented the document from reaching the OMB in a timely manner.

Reportedly, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt signed off on the final rule document in early December, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood signing shortly afterwards. But inexplicably, the paperwork did not reach the OMB on February 19, and officials there are known to be unsympathetic to pleas to speed up their processes.

While the OMB requires 90 days to perform its financial analysis, it is not compelled to complete its work within 90 days. That’s its target, but its requests for additional information and clarifications have been known to extend things well beyond 90 days. Consequently, the FAA in March put on a brave face and stated that the date slippage was really no big deal, because the final tests and acceptance of the Juneau, Alaska ADS-B configuration and procedures wouldn’t be complete until late this month anyway. Nevertheless, the agency carefully avoided forecasting that the final rule would definitely be released in mid-May.

Possibly, the agency’s caution stemmed from a separate Dec. 8, 2009, notification to the FAA that the Transportation Department’s Inspector General (IG) would begin an information technology security and controls audit of the agency’s ADS-B program, in response to a request from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The audit will determine whether ADS-B security requirements have been properly specified in the contract and satisfied by the contractor, the contractor is following the FAA’s security architecture in developing ADS-B, and the contractor has identified and mitigated security risks.

This audit might also be routine, save for the fact that Fox News in March put out a report about $49 foreign-built GPS jammers, ostensibly designed for personal anti-tracking use (by errant spouses and so on) that could, with increased power, “bring an aircraft down.” Such jamming systems are, of course, already in widespread military use, but their purpose is to deny GPS guidance to enemy aircraft and missiles, and bringing down aircraft–particularly those with onboard backups–is improbable.

But any denial of GPS means also a denial of ADS-B capability, and this has been a continuing concern of U.S. and overseas civil aviation authorities, although rarely publicly discussed. Military GPS systems have sophisticated anti-jamming capabilities, but those techniques are highly classified. It is conceivable, therefore, that the Fox report might cause the IG to expand its audit to cover this aspect: a move that, among other things, could trigger a reprieve for loran, on virtual death row for many years, and prove that it really does have nine lives.

And an unexpected, and equally unrelated, step has been a suggestion, indirectly attributed to industry, that the currently proposed 2020 ADS-B mandate date be brought forward to 2015, to align it with Eurocontrol’s implementation plan. Insiders believe this is not likely to happen. While the airlines welcomed Secretary LaHood’s early March statement that “The administration wants to be helpful to the airline industry, to meet the costs of upgrading the air traffic control system,” observers believe that unless such help covered 100 percent of the specific upgrade costs of ADS-B to meet a 2015 mandate, many operators would object to even partially paying to equip aircraft they intend to retire before 2020. AOPA would also likely object strongly to a 2015 mandate, since there is an understanding, if not a formal agreement, between the association and the FAA that general aviation avionics mandates must observe a 10-year period for equipment transition.

ADS-B still faces possible turbulence in the months ahead. But whether it will
be severe, or merely a light chop, remains to be seen.