Navigating NextGen

 - May 25, 2010, 6:22 AM

Ask any politician or media person what NextGen is and what it will do,
and the chances are that the answers will include three common themes. First, you’ll hear that it uses satellites; second, it will be a boon to the traveling public; and third, it’s “on its way.” So far, so good. However, the devil is in the details, and NextGen has details in spades.

It’s not widely appreciated just how big a program NextGen actually is. It is truly enormous, causing a senior Boeing official to list it as one of the biggest single peacetime civil infrastructure endeavors ever undertaken by the U.S., and comparing it to the International Space Station, which itself has been called “the most expensive object ever constructed.” And yet the FAA has been unusually tight-lipped about the true size of NextGen: possibly the battle-scarred agency feels it’s safer that way. There are some interesting parallels between the two systems. The Space Station was conceived in the late 1900s, with its assembly starting around 2000 and completion planned for the 2015 to 2020 time frame. But its actual cost, rather broadly described as being between $30 billion and $100 billion, will be known only once it has been completed.

NextGen was also conceived in the late 1900s, but its significant implementation has still to begin, against a completion date of 2025. And while the FAA estimates its final cost will be some $40 billion, the Inspector General (IG) of the FAA’s parent agency, the Department of Transportation, who acts as the DOT’s financial “watchdog,” stated in April of this year that NextGen could cost “significantly more than the projected cost estimate of $40 billion.”

Yet how can NextGen possibly cost even $40 billion, let alone “significantly more”? The reason is that NextGen won’t just smooth the rough edges off today’s NAS, while adding a few more features. NextGen will essentially replace the NAS, top to bottom, with newer, much more capable technologies, most of which are still in the research and development stage, along with others that are still concepts.
That’s why the FAA describes NextGen as a transition, rather than an upgrade. But it’s a costly transition. Research, engineering, development, test and evaluation (REDTE) of new–and, for aviation applications, usually unproven–technology doesn’t come cheap. To illustrate, the FAA’s capital budget for FY 2010 included $520 million for REDTE, climbing annually to $1.3 billion by FY 2014. Firm figures aren’t available beyond FY 2014, but it is expected to keep climbing. And that $40 billion, of course, doesn’t include operator compliance costs.

So can we afford NextGen? The simple answer seems to be that if the forecasts of twice, maybe three times, today’s traffic movements come to pass by 2025, then we can’t afford not to move to NextGen, since the present system would simply be unable to handle those increases.

Where does NextGen stand today, and how is it moving along? A review of some of the NextGen programs, and a few of the external factors that can shape them, may be helpful.

RNP, Rnav, ADS-B, Laas, Waas LPV, CDAs, GPS
These are all familiar programs that several operators are now using, selectively, to meet their individual needs. None has a blanket mandate applicable to all aircraft, although some procedures–RNP, for example–have fairly demanding user regulations. Other than the military’s GPS, all have been developed to make civil flight operations safer and more efficient, and all of them do that. What’s more, all of them have roles to play in NextGen.

But the fact that they’re here and usable doesn’t mean that we are in a NextGen environment. That’s still a long way away. NextGen’s timetable covers three phases: Near Term 2008-2012, Mid Term 2012-2018 and Far Term 2018-2025. Near Term might also be called a familiarization phase, with Mid Term a gradual transitional phase leading to complete transition during the Far Term–always remembering that the mandate for ADS-B, which the FAA describes as “the backbone of NextGen,” is not expected to come due until 2020.

Yet even if the total civil aircraft fleet were fully equipped for all the myriad avionics applications that NextGen is planning to throw at us, we would be no further ahead than we are today. This is because the major ground elements that are vital to its implementation are either not ready for prime time or are still works in progress. And they are also high-ticket items, of interest to those who wonder how NextGen’s price tag can possibly reach $40 billion.

Big Numbers
NextGen architects (yes, that’s what they’re called) have designed NextGen on an integrated foundation of essential building blocks, which then collectively support
a wide range of subsystems and applications, of which there are hundreds. It is understood that currently, the majority of the subsystems are defined and are under development, but most of the applications are still in the research stage. This recognizes that over NextGen’s time frame, newer technologies can be expected to offer additional benefits, perhaps even some that might previously have been thought unattainable. Also, 2025 is not regarded as the cutoff point for further development. But a thumbnail sketch of the major building blocks and their costs could be useful to know.

Under a $1.7 billion contract, a network of more than 850 ADS-B ground stations is being installed nationwide, with completion planned in 2013. During this period, ADS-B services will be available to specific users, such as UPS and helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico, but not offered publicly. One of many procedures to be clarified is that of controller separation of the equipped and non-equipped aircraft mix before the currently planned 2020 mandatory equipage date. AIN has been told that the installation program is progressing well, with no delays anticipated. Would that all the other major building-block programs were doing so well.

The $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization (Eram) program is designed to replace the current Host computer system that essentially controls all traffic in the NAS. Host is a legacy system, reportedly employing obsolete computer language in places, and has virtually no upgrade potential. However, the initial Eram installation, located for testing at the less busy Salt Lake City ARTCC, has been trouble prone. The DOT’s IG reported in April that Eram suffered from radar processor failures and problems in controller-to-controller handoffs, and that it also paired critical flight information with the wrong aircraft. The IG stated that the FAA was then spending about $14 million per month to resolve those problems. But in a surprising additional comment, the IG observed that “those costs do not include enhancements for NextGen, which have not been established but are expected to cost several billion dollars.” Possibly, this is because the replacement of Host was planned, and its replacement’s design committed, long before NextGen was launched.

In terminal areas, controllers rely on two types of automation and display systems to handle Eram data: the standard terminal automation replacement system (Stars) and the common automated radar terminal system (Common Arts). Neither is able adequately to handle NextGen demands and both require either upgrades or replacement. Common Arts might not be able to display ADS-B information when that system is operating nationwide by 2013. The IG reported that cost estimates for either the upgrade or replacement options exceed $2 billion.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) is a $3.5 billion effort to modernize communications among FAA facilities. But its problems caused the DOT IG to question “whether the system can be relied on for NextGen initiatives and whether the FAA is adequately overseeing the contractor.” At issue here was a system failure in November last year that delayed more than 800 flights nationwide and took five hours to diagnose, correct and restore service. It turned out that, unbeknownst to the FAA, the contractor had disabled its failure alerts while performing work on the system. Perhaps dryly, the IG noted that the FAA had approved the same contractor to continue modernizing the FTI network.
Currently, the top spot on the NextGen contract pyramid is a program called Systems Engineering 2020 (SE2020) that will dole out support contracts to several different bidders this year. What’s a support contract? It’s simply a means of providing FAA staff with, er, support: technical, operational, financial, administrative, you name it. The object is to provide qualified people to agency sectors that face relatively brief but intense peaks of activity during NextGen’s gestation. The current project has a ceiling of $7 billion for the total number
of contracts awarded. Interestingly, that’s a little over twice the price United is paying to buy Continental. True, $7 billion for temporary help may seem like heady stuff, but this is Washington.

However, SE2020 could conceivably be overshadowed in value by the system-wide information management (Swim) project. Probably one of the highest-profile NextGen projects, Swim will be the nation’s aviation Internet, providing vast amounts of data to a whole range of interests in the community, from operations managers to fuel suppliers, from airline accountants to baggage handlers and all other combinations, each with password- protected access. Swim will allow pilots to discuss conditions with dispatchers, check de-icing delays and receive clearances and much other data while seated on the flight deck.

One observer said that if ADS-B is the backbone of NextGen, and Eram is to be its central nervous system, then Swim will be its heart, continuously circulating information throughout the aviation system. Swim is unquestionably the leading imperative of NextGen–which can’t work without it–and although no estimates of Swim’s contract value are available, it’s no coincidence that all the industry giants are intent on getting a piece of the action, with some powerhouse alliances already being formed. Such alliances are also being formed in Europe, where Swim is also a key element of Sesar, Europe’s NextGen equivalent. Eventually, mutually compatible Swim complexes will cover worldwide aviation activities.

Those, then, are NextGen’s major building blocks. It’s safe to predict that their introduction will not always be smooth, technical problems will arise, and their eventual costs and operational readiness dates will likely slip. In fact, the DOT’s IG stated in April that “A recent NextGen portfolio analysis… already shows that some NextGen automated air and ground capabilities originally planned for 2025 may not be implemented until 2035 or later….”

Space does not allow discussion of the many subsystems that the major NextGen building blocks will support. But pilots will certainly look forward to one of them, called the 4D Weather Cube. 4D refers to latitude, longitude, altitude and time validity. As we all know, weather forecasts are variable entities, and it is not unusual for the forecasts from two separate sources covering the same area, altitudes and time periods to differ, sometimes significantly. The Weather Cube concept collects and analyzes all available sources, both public and private, and derives the most reliable result, which then becomes the common published forecast.

In operation, a pilot during cruise could call up a 4D cube for FL350 over a 600-mile-square area for the next two hours. Approaching top of descent the pilot could select FL160 over a 200-mile area for the next two hours and, before entering the terminal area, select 2,000 feet over 40 miles for the next 30 minutes. The 4D Weather Cube is expected to be fully developed by 2013. That’s certainly a date to look forward to.

Some Other Big Numbers
There’s no question that NextGen avionics compliance could call for significant operator investment following careful analysis of the business case. While corporate operators might be less concerned than the commercial carriers about payback, some major costs could be inevitable. In the long run, however, the idea is that the benefits should outweigh the costs.

Nevertheless, FAA officials were disturbed in April when US Airways CEO Doug Parker stated publicly that since there was no capacity problem in the NAS, NextGen would not save the airlines money. He added that installing NextGen avionics would cost US Airways nearly $1 billion, and as long as the airline had to pay for it, they would rather not have it. American Airlines CEO Gerald Arpey has expressed similar views, stating that American’s cost alone for equipping its airplanes with satellite-based navigation upgrades would run from the tens to the hundreds of millions of dollars. Generally, airline officials maintain that the government should cover the airlines’ costs of compliance with its air traffic infrastructure, since it is in the national interest to maintain such a system.

On the other hand, Southwest Airlines in April began RNP operations after installing equipment in nearly 400 of its Boeing 737s. Southwest claims that its $175 million investment will be repaid by cutting just one minute of flying time off each flight.
Here, US Airways and American are looking at one side of an issue (having
to comply with arbitrary mandates) and Southwest is looking at the other (being able to select equipment that simply meets the needs of the operator). It’s the difference between rigid mandates, such as those expected for ADS-B, and the more flexible best equipped, best served (BEBS) concept. Yet it’s a growingly contentious issue that has to be resolved.

Industry observers tell AIN that the airlines really don’t expect the government to cover their full upgrade costs since, despite their protests, there is a basic acceptance that life will be better under NextGen. But unfortunately, perhaps, for the government, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in March said that “The administration wants to be helpful to the airline industry,” adding that “The Obama administration is weighing help for U.S. airlines to meet the costs of upgrading the air traffic control system.” At the time, LaHood said that the White House was looking into the matter and should have something to say soon, although there has been no announcement since then. But the airlines will certainly not forget LaHood’s remarks, and nor, undoubtedly, will the business aviation community.

All Politics Is Local
Ultimately, many of these challenging aviation issues are determined by Congress during the annual appropriations and other hearings. Still, it would be hard to imagine that among the Senate’s numerous recommendations for inclusion in the FAA’s Appropriations Act one would find the text below. But it’s there.

“Not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator
of the Federal Aviation Administration shall submit to Congress a report on the progress being made by airports to install bicycle parking for airport customers and airport employees.”

Yet there is a more serious side to political oversight. One fairly important aspect of NextGen is the need to consolidate facilities, such as reducing the number of ARTCCs with the advent of advanced communication systems (ignoring the present FCI hiatus) and the likely staff reductions resulting from the introduction of ever more automation. While the often substantial cost-saving benefits and increased efficiency of consolidation can be readily demonstrated, Congress appears to have no taste for reducing local jobs or seeing them moved elsewhere. With the costs involved in NextGen, and the large potential savings in consolidation, we can expect to see some vigorous Congressional horse trading over the issue.

An Uneasy Partnership     
In the euphoria surrounding the run up to NextGen, it seemed that everyone wanted to climb aboard the bandwagon, pledging technical, financial and other forms of support. In the end, four government organizations–NASA and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce (for its NOAA weather connection)– joined the FAA to form a loose partnership, ostensibly headed by a committee of its respective chiefs.

However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the “watchdog” arm of Congress, has seen occasional loosening of enthusiasm among the three Departments, although NASA remains strongly committed to the concept. Generally, the Departments have variously offered reasons such as limited funding and staff to dedicate to NextGen activities, competing priorities and the lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities in the partnership. Recently, the FAA learned that the Commerce Department’s research into a common weather forecast–from which the 4D Weather Cube would be developed–excluded aviation applications. To include those, Commerce stated, would require specific funding from the FAA. Separately, the DOD and DHS recently advised the GAO that their FY 2010 funding for NextGen work had been transferred to other priorities. Just possibly, the DOD, which is regarded as the leading government authority on Swim-like net-centric systems, had heard about the comment of an FAA official that his agency was unwilling to use the DOD’s experience because the agency’s culture was “reluctant to embrace technologies not developed by FAA.”

The Customer Is Usually Right
Europe’s equivalent to NextGen is the Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar), and the two are following a basically similar course, since international system compatibility is essential. Yet there’s a key difference. While the FAA and its Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) formed several committees of industry-volunteered specialists to consider mainly technical aspects of the official NextGen plan, it was clearly understood that the bureaucrats would be the deciding authority on its final direction, as had always been the tradition.

Sesar, on the other hand, has been a government/user collaboration from the outset, where both sides have equal inputs to its final structure and timing. For example, while the FAA’s pending ADS-B rule is expected to apply arbitrarily to all aircraft, including gliders, balloons and the like, Europe’s coming legislation is expected to exempt aircraft that weigh less than 12,500 pounds and fly at less than 250 knots, although voluntary equipage would be encouraged.

Now, the tide is turning. In response to growing industry concern about the direction and impact of NextGen mandates, the FAA in January last year asked the RTCA, a not-for-profit aviation consultative body, to establish a government/ industry task force to forge community-wide consensus on the NextGen operational improvements to be implemented during the transition between then and 2018. Underlying industry’s concern was the fact that the FAA did not appear to recognize the potential of the advanced avionics suites in newer aircraft, particularly those in business aviation, which would allow a number of immediate benefits for both the agency and the user community. This was clearly demonstrated in the September 2009 task-force report, which also proposed that its recommendations cover just the first three to five years ahead, in recognition of the rapid advances in technology as we move towards 2018.

Apart from relatively minor differences, the FAA accepted the task force’s recommendations and, in doing so, established an important consultative precedent as NextGen’s implementation proceeds. Nevertheless, it seems essential that, having proved its value, the user community should establish a task force-like body that will continue to monitor, and intercede when necessary, throughout the life of NextGen and beyond. It should be noted that NBAA was an early proponent of the RTCA Task Force concept, and an active member once it was established. Similarly, EBAA is an important participant in Europe’s Sesar process. 

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