The FAA claims the NextGen Air Transportation System initiative is progressing, according to its recently issued NextGen Implementation Plan report, which projects a reduction in delays of 41 percent by the end of the mid-term implementation period in 2020.
Benefits of NextGen’s delay reductions include, through 2020, carbon dioxide emissions down by 16 million metric tons and 1.6 billion fewer gallons of jet fuel burned. In 2011, the Energy Information Institute reported jet fuel consumption of 21.851 billion gallons, so the anticipated reduction would be roughly 7 percent.
It seems that every year the FAA adds more items to its NextGen wish list. New this year is the agency’s desire to figure out how to integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the national airspace system.
According to the FAA, “NextGen continues to gain momentum in 2013 in its drive to develop and implement systems and procedures that make U.S. aviation operations safer, more efficient and friendlier to the environment.” Key areas of improvement include:
• Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM) program will see the first three sites (Houston, north Texas, Washington, D.C.) enter the implementation phase this year. OAPM will see further implementation of performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures, which use area navigation aided by GPS, DME and onboard computers to navigate precise but flexible flight paths.
• Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground station installations grew to more than 500 of the planned 700 due by early next year. These ground stations are necessary for the fundamental NextGen capability of surveillance of airborne targets, and the FAA says that 28 terminal radar approach control facilities are already using ADS-B to provide separation services.
• The en route modernization (Eram) system for all 20 air route traffic control centers is expected to reach operational readiness next year, under the revised schedule. Eram is needed to enable NextGen capabilities such as data communications (Data Comm) and system-wide information management (Swim), but “further software development” to Eram will be required.
• The FAA is hoping to encourage operators to equip for NextGen, and the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 provides for operational and financial incentives. The financial incentives could be loan guarantees and credit assistance for commercial and general aviation operators. Operational incentives are envisioned as offering priority to NextGen-equipped aircraft before the ADS-B mandate takes effect On Jan. 1, 2020.
• Airport surface operations are a key part of NextGen, and the FAA’s Surface Operations Office has developed a surface concept of operations (ConOps) in collaboration with air traffic controllers, cockpit crews, airline managers and airports.
• The FAA issued the $331 million Data Comm integrated services contract to Harris last September. This will enable data communication between aircraft and controllers starting in 2016. According to the FAA, now that the Data Comm contract is final, “all six NextGen transformational programs (ADS-B, Swim, NextGen common support services–weather, collaborative air traffic management technologies, national airspace system voice switch and Data Comm) [are] under way.”
In April, before release of this year’s Implementation Plan, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a critique of NextGen. Interestingly, the GAO report considers the “midterm” period as extending through 2018, while the FAA Implementation Plan pushes the midterm to 2020, coincident with the Jan. 1, 2020 ADS-B out equipage mandate. The GAO noted that NextGen is expected to cost $18 billion through 2018.
A number of challenges will delay benefits of NextGen in the mid term, according to the GAO report. These include limiting changes in routing using PBN procedures to locales where lengthy environmental reviews would be triggered; lack of integration of operational improvement efforts at airports; and focusing on implementing PBN procedures requested by operators and not those that would maximize benefits to the national airspace system. “Not addressing remaining challenges could delay NextGen implementation and limit potential benefits,” the GAO wrote.
Other government entities are concerned about NextGen challenges, too. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on July 17 to address “Causes of Delays to the FAA’s NextGen Program.”
Flying NextGen Now
While aircraft operators likely have many questions about NextGen, there are ways that operators can take advantage of NextGen capabilities during the mid-term period by equipping with appropriate avionics. Major avionics manufacturers report that they are ready with ADS-B-capable equipment that meets the latest FAA technical standard order (TSO DO260B). Any pilot can fly with an ADS-B in receiver that delivers free weather and traffic information to portable devices, and these work at most altitudes.
Required navigation performance (RNP) approaches with curved-path radius-to-fix legs are already in place at airports such as Denver, Seattle and others (authorization is required to fly these approaches). Some airlines equipped with ACSS ADS-B out and in systems are already conducting operations such as in-trail procedures on oceanic tracks using ACSS’s SafeRoute software solution.
Honeywell’s ground-based augmentation system is part of the NextGen architecture. “We’re seeing strong momentum with our GBAS,” said Honeywell senior manager Pat Reines, “and deployment will continue to grow, becoming the industry’s de facto standard for precision approach and landing. Recently, Houston Bush International added a GBAS installation in addition to Newark International, and [there are] more than 20 other installations worldwide.
“For adoption to continue,” Reines said, “an acceptance of change is required among all stakeholders, not only up to the point of installation but also in the subsequent operational model. Airport authorities need to engage with regulators, primary airlines and their suppliers to build a business plan for GBAS that defines objectives, timelines and metrics of success for all parties concerned.”
Rockwell Collins plans to begin forward-fit and retrofit installations of its recently TSO’ed DO260B ADS-B OUT solutions. These include the TDR-94D for jets and helicopters and TSS-4100 for the new Pro Line Fusion flight deck.
The Deadline Approaches
Operators that are waiting for the 2020 ADS-B out mandate might not want to wait too long, and not just because the avionics industry is going to be overwhelmed with installations. There are benefits, according to NBAA COO Steve Brown, including increased airspace and airport capacity and improved navigation capabilities and procedures, plus vastly more reliable surveillance via ADS-B and datalink communications that are much better than “party-line” type radio calls. The result will be, he said, “more efficient flight trajectories, burning less fuel, fewer emissions and less maintenance costs. The less time you spend in the air, the lower the cost and the better it is for everyone.”
While the deadline is seven years away, operators need to consider their fleet plans, he suggested, and decide whether they will keep existing aircraft past 2020 or buy new aircraft that will come with ADS-B and NextGen equipment. But little progress will be made unless, as the FAA and Brown pointed out, a critical mass of operators becomes equipped for NextGen. “Getting to that critical mass and that inflection point is important to dramatically increase the use of NextGen and the benefit to all the operators,” he said. Research shows that roughly 60 to 80 percent will achieve critical mass, he said. “It depends upon the complexity of the airspace.” NextGen benefits are coming faster, for example, in areas where airspace is more structured, such as the North Atlantic tracks. “The structure of an organized and disciplined track system allows you to get benefits more quickly than if you have a complex domestic airspace where all the routes are not parallel,” Brown explained.
“I hope nobody is saying that NextGen is bad,” he concluded. “Humans get a little nervous about change. That’s logical. I think people should have positive feelings about the changes that are associated with NextGen. Anybody who flew with the VOR and ILS system for a long time would say that GPS is a lot better. Each of the changes in technology and procedures associated with NextGen will be much like this. ADS-B is going to be far superior to radar technology that dates back to World War II. Datalink is sort of email to the cockpit, and it’s going to be a lot better than the garbled voice communication where people step on each other and you have to repeat [many] times.”