FAA Declares Steady Progress on NextGen ATC Modernization

 - October 24, 2016, 2:00 PM
FAA Air Traffic Organization chief operating officer Teri Bristol addresses the ATCA conference on October 19. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Top officials with Federal Aviation Administration say the agency is making progress toward the goals of its ambitious and long-running NextGen effort to modernize the ATC system. During a round of speeches at the recent Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) conference, Administrator Michael Huerta also acknowledged that there is significant public resistance to redesigning airport arrival and departure routes to take advantage of performance-based navigation (PBN), considered one of the pillars of NextGen.

“We’re making great progress on many fronts,” Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO), said during a “State of the ATO” speech on October 19. “We’re improving NAS [National Airspace System] performance, we’re delivering benefits through NextGen, and we’re integrating drones and rockets in the airspace system.”

The FAA is focused on “getting the message out, because if you listen to some of our critics you might not think we’re making progress,” she added.

Working with the industry-government NextGen Advisory Committee, the FAA has identified priorities for modernization and developed an implementation plan to achieve them. It has completed 103 planned commitments and recently extended the approach through 2019, Bristol said. Under the Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex program, the agency has completed 11 projects designed to improve air traffic flows in regions containing multiple large and small airports by redesigning airspace and incorporating satellite-enabled PBN routes and procedures. In September, the agency released a 15-year strategy outlining its plan to make PBN the nation’s primary means of navigation.

In a separate speech, Huerta spoke of the public pushback over noise that has attended airspace redesign efforts incorporating new PBN routing. “We’ve very aggressively been rolling out performance-based navigation, and it has certainly made flights more efficient, which saves us money, saves carriers money and reduces pollution,” he said. “And while more precise navigation paths have an effect of shrinking the noise footprint of aircraft…it does in many instances concentrate the noise over a smaller geographic area directly beneath those flight paths. As a result, we’ve gotten a few calls and letters, we’ve seen an increasing level of public debate, of political interest and litigation as it relates to the deployment of these procedures.”

The FAA has “stepped up its public engagement across the United States” in response to the reaction, Huerta added.

Among other steps, the FAA recently completed automation system upgrades at 11 of its largest terminal radar approach control (Tracon) facilities. As of the ATCA conference, it had equipped 48 airport towers to provide text-based departure clearances to pilots under the Data Comm program, which FAA executives say is two years ahead of schedule. The Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM) program, which aims to facilitate “collaborative decisionmaking” on the airport surface through electronic data exchanges, will start rolling out to airports in 2019. And airlines have shared with the FAA their plans to equip 90 percent of the U.S. air carrier fleet with required automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) OUT signaling capability by the 2020 deadline, Bristol said.

During a panel discussion, Robert Pappas, flight operations manager with the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, reported that the newly formed Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) was then holding its first meeting in Washington, D.C. Modeled on the Commercial Aviation Safety Team and the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, the UAST is an industry-government group that will make recommendations to the agency on drone safety. It is internal to the FAA, Pappas explained, as compared to the new high-level Drone Advisory Committee that meets under the auspices of standards organization RTCA.