ADS-B is without question a promising solution to the many safety, capacity and other suboptimal characteristics of today’s air traffic management system. Moreover, most observers agree that ADS-B will be one of the essential keys to America’s NextGen air traffic control system and comparable programs worldwide. All that is a given. Unfortunately, its introduction appears to be off to a rocky start.
ADS-B stands for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast. It allows controllers to monitor aircraft that are broadcasting position, velocity and other information via a highly accurate onboard GPS. ADS-B comes in two versions, OUT and IN. The OUT system is the broadcast that provides position information to controllers via a network of more than 630 ground stations in the U.S. The IN system allows properly equipped aircraft to receive free weather and traffic information on displays in the cockpit.
A controversial hurdle ahead–for basically any aircraft that currently requires a transponder–is in the mandatory installation of ADS-B OUT equipment by Jan. 1, 2020. On the face of it, this should not be a problem, other than the cost of buying the actual units and having them installed in an FAA-approved manner. As Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, said on September 25, “the infrastructure necessary to implement ADS-B is on time, on budget and on the job.” And backing up Blakey’s remarks on the following day, FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker told the NextGen Institute that “the ADS-B infrastructure has been completed, so we have done our part of the bargain.”
But that’s just the network of 634 ground stations.
Few Aircraft ADS-B Ready
With just slightly more than five years before the 2020 ADS-B OUT deadline, the FAA estimates that just 3 percent of the 18,000 major air carrier airplanes and 10 percent of 223,000 general aviation aircraft, including business aircraft will be ADS-B OUT-equipped by October 1 this year (the start of the FAA’s fiscal year 2015). Certainly, air carriers and corporate operators recognize that mandates are mandates and have presumably arranged to comply with them.
Whitaker stressed “clearly and unequivocally” in September, that the “the 2020 mandate will not change.” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has also said that the deadline is firm. So why are so many general aviation operators holding back?
Ironically, in his address to the NextGen Institute last month, Whitaker put his finger on one widely accepted reason, and this is the cost of installing ADS-B OUT. “We have seen the price of equipage come down. It seems like every time there’s an airshow at Oshkosh, the price has come down another thousand dollars. We’re seeing positive trends in that direction.”
But will aircraft owners and operators follow the trends and buy ADS-B equipment now, knowing the obsolescence rate of computer-related equipment, coupled with rapid technological advances? Will they willingly invest several thousand dollars today to buy and install avionics gear that is not officially required for another five years? Some might add that the prime beneficiary of their ADS-B OUT investments will be the air traffic control service, for which they are already required to carry ATC transponders.
DOT IG Weighs In
The FAA and others would probably argue that operators would obtain valuable benefits from ADS-B OUT well before 2020. At least, they might have made that argument prior to September 11, when the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation published an audit report titled, “ADS-B Benefits Are Limited Due To a Lack of Advanced Capabilities and Delays in User Equipage” (see box).
In the conclusion of its audit report, the DOT-OIG stated, “Although FAA has made progress by completing the ground infrastructure, the Agency has yet to determine what the program will cost, how long it will take to fully implement, or what capabilities and benefits the system will ultimately provide air traffic controllers and pilots. Until FAA conducts comprehensive testing of ADS-B’s overall performance, determines how it will be used to support new capabilities for managing air traffic in complex and congested airspace, and establishes future baselines for the total program, the Agency may not be able to fully justify taxpayers’ and users’ investment in ADS-B.”
The DOT-OIG requested that FAA respond within 30 days.
In a public response to the DOT-OIG’s report, Mike Whitaker, FAA Deputy Administrator, announced on September 18 that the FAA would hold a daylong “Call to Action” summit on October 28 to engage the aviation industry in meeting the Jan. 1, 2020 deadline to equip aircraft for ADS-B.
“The FAA has met its commitment and built the foundation for ADS-B,” Whitaker said. “It is time for all users of the national airspace, including avionics suppliers, aircraft integrators, operators and installers, to work together to ensure that all aircraft flying in controlled airspace are equipped with these NextGen avionics. The full benefits of increased safety and efficiency of the national airspace depend on 100 percent equipage.”
Industry Remains Skeptical
The reaction from the industry to the audit report was predictably skeptical.
“The Inspector General’s report highlights the profound problems associated with the 2020 mandate and the FAA’s modernization program, which has seen repeated delays and cost overruns over a period of years,” said Mark Baker, president of the AOPA, in a statement from the association. He added, “Equipping for ADS-B simply allows pilots to continue flying in the same airspace they use today at an added cost of between $5,000 and $6,000 to install the required equipment. We need to look seriously at how the system can be made to deliver on its promises while considering issues like cost and portability.”
According to the statement, “While taxpayers already have spent $6.5 billion on ADS-B, the Inspector General valued the program’s current benefit at just $5.9 billion. And, the report suggests, the FAA’s lack of advanced technical capabilities may prevent the technology from ever producing sufficient benefits to justify the costs.”
“The Inspector General’s findings raise significant questions about whether the system will be ready by 2020, adding to the aviation community’s confusion about when and how to equip,” Baker said. “We look forward to working with the FAA and the aviation community to develop solutions that are cost effective and offer greater flexibility in addressing ADS-B equipage issues.”
Paula Derks, president of the Aircraft Electronics Association told AIN,“While there are a few implementation challenges to address, the certified repair station industry has the capacity today to perform ADS-B installations at a rate necessary for more than 160,000 aircraft to equip and comply with the mandate by New Year’s Day 2020. Demand from aircraft owners is expected to increase as the deadline nears, and AEA member repair stations indicate they will begin expanding their installation capacity in order to keep up with new demand.
“It should also be noted,” Derks continued, “that several avionics manufacturers recently introduced new ADS-B compliant solutions, and I would expect more manufacturers to offer additional products and solutions to the general aviation marketplace in 2015. Having said that, the pace with which aircraft owners are currently on to upgrade needs to increase dramatically, as any further deferment could force serious backlogs in 2016 and beyond.”
Derks added that the AEA looks forward to participating in this summit with the FAA. “The summit is a step in the right direction, and it will give industry leaders the opportunity to address some of the criticisms of the FAA noted by the Inspector General.” The association will be represented at the meeting by Derks herself, David Loso, chairman of the AEA board of directors, and Ric Peri, AEA vice president of government and industry affairs.
Highlights of the DOT IG’s ADS-B Audit Report
The Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (DOT-OIG) issued audit report AV-2014-15, entitled, “ADS-B Benefits Are Limited Due To a Lack of Advanced Capabilities and Delays in User Equipage,” on September 11 this year. The brief introductory summary of the report commences with this simple statement:
“FAA has deployed the ADS-B ground infrastructure, but controller and pilot use of ADS-B information throughout the NAS remains years away. Notably, FAA has yet to resolve significant hazards identified during operational testing or conduct more rigorous testing of the entire system to determine whether all ADS-B elements will perform as expected. As a result, FAA has not authorized the exclusive use of ADS-B information to manage air traffic across the NAS. Further, the Agency’s system for monitoring the performance of the ADS-B signal remains under development.”
The DOT OIG then discusses these concerns in detail:
• FAA has made progress deploying the ADS-B ground infrastructure, but has not sufficiently tested the entire system.
• FAA has not fully resolved problems identified in ADS-B operational testing. FAA has not sufficiently tested the entire ADS-B system.
• FAA has yet to fully develop its ADS-B monitoring system.
• FAA’s current lack of advanced capabilities and benefits have discouraged user investment in ADS-B.
• ADS-B provides some useful services, but benefits likely will remain limited by the 2020 equipage mandate.
• FAA certification process for ADS-B avionics is lengthy and lacks sufficient oversight.
Requirements for ADS-B In’s advanced capabilities continue to evolve.
• FAA’s total costs to fully implement ADS-B exceed original estimates.
• FAA may be paying for ADS-B services that are not being used.
• Current cost estimates for ADS-B outweigh its benefits
Concluding, the DOT-OIG stated, “ADS-B is expected to improve safety, capacity, and efficiency in the NAS.”
The DOT-OIG requested that the FAA respond within 30 days.