FAA shifts focus for Next Generation air traffic control to near-term possibilities

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is looking at opportunities to begin phasing in new technology over the next decade that could help relieve the growing congestion in the nation’s air transportation system.

The FAA’s most recent implementation plan for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which is supposed to be in place by 2025, focuses on capabilities that can be achieved in the mid-term, from 2012 to 2018, the Government Accountability Office told a House panel Wednesday. That shift is in part a response to industry concerns about the ability of the current system to handle growing volumes of air traffic.

“Today’s system is straining to meet current demands,” Gerald Dillingham, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, said. “To help address current congestion and delays, industry stakeholders have frequently suggested that FAA focus on maximizing what can be done with existing, proven capabilities and existing infrastructure.”

The NextGen system would replace the current radar-based air traffic control system in which data, communications and instructions flow to and from a handful of ground control facilities, to a satellite-based system that would allow aircraft to locate each other and communicate with each other and FAA controllers more efficiently. This would allow more efficient use of congested air space and airport facilities.

GAO reported on FAA’s NextGen progress to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee.

GAO has expressed concerns about the organization of the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office, in charge of planning the new system, and the Air Traffic Organization, which will be in charge of implementation and transition.

“Recent versions of NextGen planning documents have partially addressed some of GAO’s concerns about their usefulness, but industry stakeholders continue to express frustration that the documents lack any specific timelines or commitments,” Dillingham said.

The aviation industry also wanted to see more near-term investment in existing technologies to ease pressure. The nation’s air traffic controls system now handles about 50,000 flights a day, and in 2008 one in four of those flights was delayed or canceled. The volume is expected to increase to 80,000 a day by 2025. The aviation industry suggested to GAO the broader use of off-the-shelf tools, such as Traffic Management Advisor, Traffic Flow Management, and User Request Evaluation Tool, as well as techniques such as performance-based navigation and tailored arrival procedures.

Traffic Management Advisor, a decision support tool, is being used in some airports to increase capacity, but the industry it is not being used to its full potential.

NextGen includes five major programs, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), System-Wide Information Management, NextGen Data Communications, NextGen Network Enabled Weather, and National Airspace Voice Switch. One of the first of these to be implemented in the near term could be ADS-B, which FAA has been using in pilot and demonstration programs.

ADS-B lets airplanes determine their position using a global navigation satellite system and broadcast that information to other aircraft and to ground stations, rather than depending on ground-based radar. This would enable improved use of increasingly crowded airspace, and FAA established its Surveillance and Broadcast Services program office in 2005. FAA calls ADS-B a proven technology after years of use by general aviation pilots in Alaska and in air transport carriers in the Ohio River Valley.

However, industry officials told GAO that without explicit commitments from FAA to reduce separation standards with ADS-B is in place, there would be no incentive for airlines to invest in the technology.

Staffing and funding for updating the air traffic control system also is a concern. A senior FAA official told GAO that staffing needs can be difficult to address because historically the skills needed have been in short supply and competitively priced in the marketplace.

Funding requested for FAA NextGen research and development has significantly increased, GAO said, from $83 million in fiscal year 2009 to about twice that amount in each of the next four fiscal years. This funding should complement investments made by other federal agencies, particularly NASA, to help support NextGen’s implementation. The stimulus funding law has increased NASA’s budget for aeronautics research by $150 million, although it does not specify whether this additional funding will be focused on NextGen-specific research.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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