Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are aiming toward a new dawn in air navigation, promising increased benefits for users. But officials seem to be running into some growing pains. During U.S. Senate hearings, regulators are being asked why things are taking so long, and industry bodies in Europe are getting fed up with the slow implementation pace of their own system.
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration sent an update to Congress regarding one of the agency’s most forward-looking programs, NextGen. The agency said NextGen is “the next quantum leap in air traffic control,” according to the document which was prepared by the FAA’s Michael G. Whitaker, who just completed his first year as “Chief NextGen Officer.”
He reported to Congress the FAA has made considerable strides toward implementing a new national airspace system (NAS), and that a roadmap has been laid out for the next three years. In the air cargo industry, massive industry-wide measures take significant time to develop (e-freight, I’m looking at you); NextGen’s benefits go way beyond air cargo, and in fact, it’s a movement primarily driven by the passenger world. Officials at cargo divisions of passenger airlines will tell you that many, if not all, of the decisions are tailored to fit passenger needs because that’s where most of the money is generated.
So why is NextGen seemingly taking so long? In January, the Department of Transportation filed a report on the program, stating “since its inception a decade ago, FAA’s progress in implementing NextGen has not met the expectations of Congress and industry stakeholders, and key modernization efforts have experienced significant cost increases and schedule delays.” Senators at hearings in June were befuddled by the slow pace as well.
According to Whitaker’s document, substantial progress is being made. In March, he said, the groundwork — as in, ground infrastructure — was laid for one of NextGen’s foundational systems, Automatic Surveillance-Broadcast. The AS-B will allow air traffic controllers to switch from radar when tracking planes to GPS. Radar systems were not as precise because they would only ping each aircraft once every couple of seconds; with AS-B, planes are tracked by way of a constant stream of data. There are also benefits for pilots, as Whitaker explained.
“We will deliver traffic, weather and flight information directly to the cockpits of properly equipped aircraft across the country,” he wrote in the report. “These services have already proven to increase safety by enhancing a pilot’s awareness of surrounding aircraft in flight, while also keeping them apprised of nearby weather activity and the availability of airspace and airport resources.”
Whitaker also noted upgrades to the high-altitude airspace traffic control system, which hasn’t been upgraded since the 1970s, will be finished by the middle of next year, and a low-altitude tracking program will be upgraded by the end of 2016.
With long-term, involved programs like NextGen, funding can be an issue, and Whitaker warned Congress needs to see the program through to completion, which is many years away. He added these foundational programs will help introduce enhancements throughout the next decade, but further hiccups, such as the pause in implementation brought on by the sequester, only delay NextGen’s full implementation.
“Next year will be pivotal for the next stage of NextGen, as we make investment decisions for a series of future programs,” he wrote. “These decisions are dependent on stable funding. With the continuing support of Congress and our stakeholders, we will deliver NextGen and its benefits to aviation, the economy and the American people.”
At a June 11 hearing before the House Small Business Committee, FAA Adminstrator Michael Huerta talked about the agency’s mandate that all aircraft be compatible with the new systems by 2020.
“The improved accuracy, integrity and reliability of satellite signals over radar means it will be possible to safely reduce the minimum separation distance between aircraft and increase capacity in the nation's skies,” he said. “Increased equipage by the aviation community will allow the benefits of the AS-B to be realized and benefit all users of the NAS.”
On July 4, Tony Tyler, director general and chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association, made yet another pitch for Europe’s version of NextGen, the Single European Sky. Days earlier, the European Commission adopted the Pilot Common Project, expected to be in place by the end of the year, as the first step toward the initiative. Commissioners said the pilot project will improve air traffic to and from airports, allow aircraft to fly more direct routes, and enable better sharing of data between airlines.
Speaking at the ECAC/EU Dialogue Session in Vienna, Tyler said poor air traffic management costs European airlines 3 billion euros a year, along with pumping 7.8 million tons of “unnecessary” carbon emissions into the sky.
“SES will reduce delays, cut emissions, raise safety levels and contribute to the creation of 320,000 jobs across Europe,” he said. “Quite simply, it is critical for Europe’s future. But progress has been frustratingly slow.”
Back in the United States at the same House Small Business Committee hearing, Kenneth J. Button of George Mason University pointed out a huge stumbling block for NextGen. Aside from adequate funding from the government, the system’s full implementation faces skepticism from an industry wary of investment.
“The costs to both the aviation sector and taxpayer are not small, and the expenses of retrofitting part of the general aviation fleet to meet new certification standards by 2020 are equally far from negligible,” he said. “It is perhaps unfortunate that incentives for early adoption have been slow to transpire, but firm mandates have been shown to stimulate market responses that allow targets to be met.”
It’s clear that full NextGen implementation will have significant benefits for air cargo users. Moving forward, let’s hope history doesn’t repeat, dooming NextGen to a maddeningly slow development and rollout.
This column was published in the August 2014 issue of American Shipper.