Is the FAA’s billion-dollar-a-year NextGen program devolving into a patchwork of technology demonstrations, refined routings to discrete airports and reduced aircraft separations over mainly water? Is the agency’s promised comprehensive overhaul of the National Airspace System chasing its predecessor grand vision—Free Flight—into oblivion?
One couldn’t help entertaining that thought during a panel discussion at the recent American Association of Airport Executives conference in Washington, D.C. The panel’s theme, “NextGen Now,” was a gut check of the ATC modernization effort, which has been at least a decade in the making. The topic brought to the fore some outspoken critics of NextGen’s progress, none more prominent than the panel moderator, Boeing vice president of air traffic management (ATM) strategy Neil Planzer. In an interesting juxtaposition, Planzer sat at one end of the panel; Steve Bradford, the FAA’s chief scientist for architecture and NextGen development sat at the other.
An influential voice within the ATM community, Planzer pulled no punches. “NextGen had an original design goal of three times capacity” of the current airspace system, he said. “It was a bad design goal, it was not achievable, but it was what the design goal was. We’ve put a lot of treasury on developing NextGen. We’re now backing off, dummying down the outcomes, looking at NextGen as an efficiency capability.”
Planzer was supported by Chris Benich, Honeywell vice president for aerospace regulatory affairs. Benich noted that while the FAA had delivered its annual 20-year aerospace forecast at the conference, NextGen didn’t figure prominently in the presentation. “We need a better plan that aligns with the needs of the environment, that actually maps to the forecast that we’re looking at here,” he said. “I’m surprised I didn’t see one mention in the description of how the FAA generates these forecasts that actually took into account NextGen performance.”
The discussion was not entirely critical of NextGen. Capt. Sean Cassidy, Air Line Pilots Association first vice president, spoke of the benefits to airlines of a key enabler, required navigation performance (RNP), pioneered by his own Alaska Airlines in the mid-1990s with an approach through the Gastineau Channel into Juneau. Former Colorado state aviation director Travis Vallin described how that state’s deployment of wide area multilateration sensors to fill radar gaps in the Rocky Mountains enhanced safety and improved access to high-country airports during bad weather.
But even these proven capabilities are limited in scope, Planzer argued. An RNP approach into Juneau “wasn’t necessarily required for NextGen. That’s a technology that’s being used on a singular runway on a singular aircraft without the difficulties [of] other aircraft being involved,” he said. “For RNP to be successful, it would have to be certified for the urgent operations, crossing operations and capabilities not at Juneau, but at La Guardia [airport]. … The real-world problems that we’re solving with some of this really are very limited. We’ve spent a lot of money buying technology and now trying to figure out how to apply it.”
The discussion shifted to the FAA’s progress in consolidating ATC facilities. Richard Efford, Aerospace Industries Association assistant vice president for legislative affairs, noted that the 2012 FAA reauthorization act required the agency to submit to Congress a comprehensive report on how it plans to consolidate and realign facilities—a report it still hasn’t submitted. In an audit report last July, the Department of Transportation inspector general’s office said that many of the FAA’s 561 manned ATC facilities “are deteriorating and outdated, especially given the agency’s ongoing modernization efforts." The FAA plans to begin by consolidating 49 facilities into an integrated facility serving the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia region, at an estimated cost of $2.3 billion. “However, FAA has not yet decided where to build the first facility, nor developed metrics to measure the effectiveness of its plans,” the IG said.
A telling exchange between Planzer and Bradford had the feel of a postmortem analysis. “NextGen isn’t successful. Some of the projects within NextGen are very successful, but NextGen isn’t,” Planzer declared. He said one of the measures of success should be a reduction in the system's operational costs. “That was never a goal; cost effectiveness was a goal,” Bradford shot back. “In fact, I’m sitting here laughing because many of the things that are in the [NextGen] plan, many of the things that have been advocated, increased our costs. Because that’s what the community wanted, that’s what Congress wanted. We wanted to make the users more cost effective, we wanted them to be able to operate better, so we were willing to spend more money.”