The Dark Side of NextGen

 - June 29, 2011, 6:15 AM

The FAA’s March 2011 NextGen implementation plan is certainly a finely drawn view of what we should expect to see by 2018. Replete with charts, graphs, attractive photography and explanatory text, the document makes for exciting reading. Sculpted as it has been from its 1990s birth as the Next Generation Air Transportation System–and with its clumsy N-GATS acronym dropped in favor of the zippy NextGen–the system has clearly caught the imagination of media and politicians alike.

Possibly, too, its gestation many years ago captured for its developers the theme of Field of Dreams, a then-current movie that gave us “If you build it, they will come,”a notion that one suspects still lives on in the minds of many FAA officials. Unfortunately, several of NextGen’s ongoing development efforts also remind some of us of another movie, the one that brought us the Dark Side of the Force.

Regrettably, the implementation plan omits mentioning the ongoing delays and cost escalation in several of NextGen’s more advanced  systems, typified by those currently experienced with its $2.1 billion en route automation modernization (Eram) program, a foundational NextGen building block, upon which much of the eventual NextGen structure will depend.

The Dark Side of Eram

Launched in 2003, Eram was intended to replace the FAA’s aging Host flight data processing network by 2010. By late 2008, however, the pre-production system was beginning to suffer from what the DOT IG described as “numerous technical problems,” including mis-tagging aircraft, controller handoff errors and more than 200 software issues. As a result, the schedules were “pushed well beyond original completion dates, and cost estimates increased by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The FAA’s planned deployment at 20 en route facilities by 2010 has now slipped to 2014, with the additional costs estimated as “close to $500 million.” Sadly, and apparently due to the FAA’s premature “acceptance” of the system, those additional costs go on the agency’s tab.

Because NextGen is a “system of systems,” Eram’s problems don’t happen in isolation, and they have a domino effect on other major programs–such as ADS-B, data communications (DataComm) and system wide information management (Swim)–that have already been allocated more than $500 million for Eram integration. Further, the IG pointed out, FAA documents acknowledge that Eram delays will affect development of trajectory-based operations and the planned transition to a common terminal and en route automation platform, while prolonged delays could affect future software enhancements estimated to cost $1 billion. 

‘Best equipped, Best Served’

The FAA’s March document makes frequent positive reference to ADS-B without clearly differentiating between ADS-B out and ADS-B in, although the two terms are not synonymous. The agency has mandated installation of ADS-B out in all aircraft by 2020, although it offers no more to its purchasers than the transponders they already operate. Not surprisingly, avionics vendors report that the “If you build it, they will come” theory hasn’t quite worked for ADS-B out, with most buyers holding off, anticipating that the introduction of newer technology will lower prices by 2020. And while ADS-B out provides better accuracy than radar, AIN is unaware of any FAA plans to use even the marginal benefit of that capability for early installers.

On the other hand, ADS-B in–or “full” ADS-B–provides pilots with a controller-like presentation of surrounding traffic and, in some configurations, can display weather and other flight information. ADS-B in technical specifications are currently being developed, with the user avionics becoming more complex, and thus more costly than those for ADS-B out. Market availability of certified production equipment for ADS-B out, as for DataComm and Swim, is not known.

The FAA also makes positive references to required navigation performance (RNP) in the March document, yet the agency has been slow to encourage the technique, even though its use in other nations demonstrates that it provides significant user benefits. In Canada alone, operators routinely use time- and fuel-saving RNP procedures on more than 100 separate approaches.

The FAA has commissioned a number of RNP approaches, but the majority are simply overlays of ILS approaches. While useful for pilot familiarity and training, these offer little benefit in the real world. The FAA is understood to be considering the development of non-overlay procedures, but this is likely to be a time-consuming process. In some cases, environmental impact consultations have added years to procedure approvals. At the same time, there appears to be official reluctance (to phrase it diplomatically) to make wider use of those private organizations that have already provided demonstrably safe procedures in the U.S. and overseas. This is unfortunate, and could be costly for U.S. leadership in the future, when RNP procedures become the standard in NextGen and international airspace, and demand increases rapidly.

 “Best equipped, best served” is rarely mentioned in the NextGen implementation plan. Yet this concept was the unspoken issue during the FAA/operator discussions before the agency’s re-ordering of priorities in its original NextGen plans. Airline and corporate operators of new aircraft repeatedly stressed that their machines already carry systems with capabilities far in advance of those provided by FAA ATC services. Furthermore, their new technology represented major investments for which operators could obtain no payback. This paradox eventually led to the concept of “best equipped, best served,” to selectively replace aviation’s traditional “first come, first served” practice.

In operation, an aircraft’s flight plan would include its certified best equipped, best served “rating,” driven by its key avionics equipage(ADS-B in, DataComm, RNP O.1, FANS 1A, GBAS Cat 3 and so on), which would then be checked for its relevance to the planned operation.  Flight-plan processing could then use this data appropriately to adjust the aircraft’s departure, climb, cruise, descent and approach times.

Proponents state that common-sense ATC rules would prevent “queue jumping,” while pointing out that a “best equipped, best served” policy offers three real advantages. First, it could optimize traffic flows; second, it would provide operators with strong incentives to upgrade their equipment; and third, it would avoid the cost-inefficiency of equipment mandates. Nevertheless, a “best equipped, best served” evaluation still seems far away.

If Only We Had Done It This Way…

At this point in NextGen’s life, it’s probably a bit late to say that maybe we should have brought the kid up differently. Yet there were sources of sound advice available to NextGen’s parents at the time. Possibly the most cogent, and most readable, of these was–and still is–“NextGen Considerations from a Program Manager’s Perspective,” presented to an ATCA Annual Conference in the mid-1990s by Michael Lewis of Boeing’s Air Traffic Management Division. Those who read Lewis’s paper and subsequently followed NextGen’s rather tortuous trail will remember his recommendations well, and sometimes painfully so. They would also have been encouraged to hear Deputy Administrator Huerta tell attendees at this year’s FAA/ATCA Technical Symposium in Atlantic City that “to develop and deliver the NextGen programs themselves, we are establishing within the ATO a program management organization. This will ensure that NextGen programs receive dedicated oversight and management while maintaining close links to the operation.…The investment in NextGen requires nothing less than the best management of the program to ensure that we all get the maximum benefit.”

Better now than never.

2025 Draws Closer

In 2018, just seven years away, we will leave NextGen’s mid-term phase and enter its third and final phase on the run up to 2025. As we make the transition, what new technologies and systems can we expect to see? What new air traffic management procedures will have been introduced? What new avionics might we need?

Unfortunately, as the FAA and its Joint Program and Development Office (JPDO) will admit, no one knows. The increasing pace of technology advance makes forecasting difficult and major government investment decisions even more perilous. On the other hand, if those new systems are anything as complex as Lockheed Martin’s Eram (still mired in software development problems after eight years and not expected to be operationally ready for another three), then we are already running late, even before we’ve announced what the future system is going to be.

But here, the planners have given the FAA and its budget masters a break. The estimate to complete all NextGen projects and accomplish full fleet equipage has previously been estimated to be on the order of $40 billion. Not long ago, the JPDO advised the GAO IG that full fleet equipage by 2025 would raise the stake to $160 billion. Conversely, extending full compliance to 2035–which the IG believes is closer to NextGen’s technical readiness–would lower the figure, although it would remain significantly higher than $40 billion. The JPDO concluded that staying within the $40 billion estimate could be achieved only by reducing NextGen’s capabilities. As the old saying goes, “You pays your money, and you takes your choice.”