Rockwell Collins CEO Clay Jones may not be a pessimist when it comes to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). But the leader of one of the world’s major avionics manufacturers is not brimming with optimism either. “Who in this room has any reasonable degree of confidence we’re going to actually get the funds necessary to implement NextGen by 2020?” Jones asked attendees of the RTCA Symposium, many of whom have invested considerable time and energy in the NextGen vision.
NextGen’s risks are no secret. The Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation Inspector General have issued regular and repetitive warnings about the FAA’s oversight of the program and contract management, the lack of cost and schedule baselines for key programs, the need for an integrated master schedule. Rockwell Collins provides the displays, radios and navigation systems that pilots will actually use in the future airspace—in effect, where the rubber meets the road—and its CEO isn’t sold on the dream.
This isn’t a new theme for the former Air Force F-15 pilot. “Technology is light years ahead of policy,” Jones said during a panel discussion in April at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit. “We’ve gone from no architecture to no implementation plan to no political will.” At the annual RTCA event June 5 in Washington, D.C., Jones recounted his own hopeful vision of an avionics-enabled future in the mid-1990s, when the dream was called “Free Flight.” Since then, he said he has been alternately discouraged and inspired by new developments.
The FAA reauthorization legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President in February after more than four years of delay and 23 temporary extensions is a good-news-and-bad news story, Jones said. The good news: it finally provides the FAA with funding stability of $63 billion over four years, with $11 billion directed to ATC modernization. It moves forward “discrete” NextGen programs such as ADS-B and DataComm, and provides a “first framework” for the introduction of unmanned aircraft into civilian airspace.
“The bad news,” Jones said, “is that out of the $11 billion designated for modernization of the ATC system in February, only about one-third, or $4 billion, will likely be dedicated to NextGen programs and will require four years of annual Congressional appropriations.” He then begged the question: did anybody in the room really believe our broken, ineffectual Congress could make that happen?
Jones advocates an approach to ATC modernization based on public-private partnerships, where industry assumes more of the responsibility and risk, backed by the good faith of the government. “The private sector certainly has the capability and capacity to make large multi-year financial commitments,” he said. “It has the human and computational assets to perform on a large system-of-systems integration task. And it has the proven ability to attract capital to fuel investments in growth. However, to attract this investment from private-equity sources, a reasonable return will be expected for the risk taken. This is where the government must step up to provide long-term contract loan guarantees.”
Without a new approach, Jones said, “we are doomed to hear the same luncheon keynote speech like this one every year for the next 10 years.”