NextGen Committee Tackles ‘Business Case’ for Equipage

 - August 30, 2011, 5:40 AM

The high-level industry and government committee tasked by the FAA with developing “a common understanding” of NextGen priorities has recommended a set of baseline airborne equipment and next will advise on operational or financial incentives that would help aircraft operators install that equipment.

At its September 29 meeting, the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) is expected to consider a “business case gap assessment” that will identify the incentives most likely to move operators from present-day equipage to NextGen, including financial options such as loans, grants or “other avenues that are in accord with [the] current political and fiscal climate.” In addition, the committee is expected to provide justification of any proposed incentives requiring taxpayer funds, a timetable to drive investment decisions and “assurances” that would be offered to so-called early adopters of NextGen technology.

Representing the different segments of civil aviation as well as the military, the NAC was formed last fall under the auspices of standards organization RTCA, which functions as a federal advisory committee to the FAA. The committee’s chairman is JetBlue Airways CEO Dave Barger. Michael Huerta, FAA deputy administrator, is the designated federal official.

The FAA first asked the NAC to prioritize NextGen operations that are dependent on new equipment in the mid-term time frame–by 2018–and then recommend aircraft user groups that should be considered for incentives to install the necessary avionics. By September, the committee is to recommend incentives for each user group to “close the business case” for equipage.

At its last full meeting May 19, hosted by JetBlue at JFK Airport in New York, the NAC recommended an incremental approach to rolling out NextGen that would require nearly all airline and general aviation operators to attain a “minimum baseline capability” for required navigation performance (RNP), automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and data communications. The NAC also recommended that the FAA deploy supporting infrastructure and procedures regionally, where benefits can be realized most quickly. The committee identified the Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago metropolitan areas specifically, including en route airspace linking the cities.

The NAC’s fleetwide solution to equipage addresses four primary operator groups–the airlines, business aviation, the larger GA community and the military–explained Steven Brown, NBAA senior vice president of operations and administration. Brown co-chairs the NAC subcommittee, which manages the activities of technical working groups. “The scenarios, the challenges, the economics associated with equipage considerations for each of those different operating stakeholders are different,” he said, “because they have different types of aircraft, different fleet compositions and different economic parameters. For example, the military doesn’t operate for profit, whereas the airlines do. [There are] different characteristics associated with assessing the ‘business case’ for each one of those stakeholder entities.” Even within those groups are divisions requiring another level of evaluation. For example, the airline industry encompasses mainline aircraft and regional jets; GA covers turbine and piston-powered aircraft, while military runs the gamut from transport to tactical aircraft.

Aircraft Capabilities Package

Under the incremental approach, the NAC recommended three aircraft capability packages, starting with a navigation package and moving to surveillance and data comm packages “as events dictate,” a reference to the pending recommendations of an aviation rulemaking committee on ADS-B in, the capability to display air traffic in the cockpit, and an evolving data communications standard. Preliminary cost estimates to industry, expected to be refined by the September meeting, were included for the three packages:

Package A (navigation): Bring airline and high-end business aircraft to a minimum baseline of GPS and RNP 0.3 (aircraft must stay within 0.3 nm left or right of centerline on approach) with radius-to-fix turn capability and general aviation to GPS Waas-LPV capability. “This would enable the FAA to establish a coordinate-based en route system quickly, and enable more flexible, efficient routes,” states a summary. Cost to airlines is estimated to be $681 million to $982 million; GA cost is estimated to be $2.1 billion to $2.6 billion.

Package B (surveillance): Equip all aircraft for ADS-B out position reporting. “While all agreed that ADS-B out delivers no operator benefits except in non-radar airspace, the rationale for this is to support the FAA’s progression toward ADS-B in,” the display of air traffic in the cockpit, states a summary. The committee estimates the cost to airlines at $650 million to $767 million; and the cost to GA at $2.4 billion to $2.7 billion.

• Package C (data comm.):Equip all aircraft with VDL-2, Fans 1/A+ or ATN Baseline One data communications. Estimated cost to air carriers is $220 million. No cost estimate was made for GA.

While it grouped baseline capabilities in navigation, surveillance and communications packages, the NAC recommended a total of 25 “aircraft enablers” be advanced for business-case consideration, adding functionality for low-visibility operations with equipment such as head-up displays and enhanced vision systems, and improved safety with cockpit displays of traffic information.

“Because it’s so difficult to manage sub-fleets, we recommended a basic level of equipage in the domains of comm, nav and surveillance across the entire” nationwide fleet, said Thomas Hendricks, NAC subcommittee co-chair and Air Transport Association senior vice president of safety, security and operations. “Any retrofits or modifications to these airplanes vary greatly in price depending on the characteristics of both the airplane and the environment that they operate in. We’re putting a lot of pencil to paper with the business case and performance metrics [working] group to flesh out what these numbers look like. We’ve got some preliminary information, but they’re continuing to refine that in preparation for delivering numbers at the NAC meeting in September.”

The NAC subcommittee was scheduled to meet September 8 to review the deliverables of its technical working groups. “The good news is that in many of these domains, there’s previous work that’s helping us do the cost-benefit analysis,” said Brown. He cited as examples the Alaska Capstone program, which has outfitted GA aircraft with GPS, multifunction displays and ADS-B to navigate Alaska’s rugged terrain, and ADS-B deployments by cargo carrier UPS, offshore oil helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico, and US Airways at its Philadelphia hub. “There’s lots of data points that we’re trying to expand to fill in our knowledge about not only the cost and the benefits, but where we are in terms of equipment maturity, TSOs [technical standard orders], certification–all of the things that bear on cost.”