FAA pushing to get advanced technology into air traffic control system

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun phasing in the use of advanced navigational and aircraft tracking technology, moving from demonstration and pilot projects to initial production capability for key elements of its Next Generation Air Transportation System.

One of the first of these to be implemented is Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), Hank Krakowski told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee on Wednesday.

“In December, FAA achieved its In-Service Decision for ADS-B essential services in southern Florida,” said Krakowski, chief operating officer of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “Achievement of this major milestone clears the way for national deployment of broadcast services.”

ADS-B, a major component of FAA’s NextGen program, 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. 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, and is beginning deployment of it in the Gulf of Mexico, where it has never had radar coverage.

NextGen is a long-term effort by FAA to bring air traffic control into the 21st century. It 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.

NextGen includes five major programs. In addition to ADS-B there is the System-Wide Information Management (SWIM), NextGen Data Communications (DataComm), NextGen Network Enabled Weather (NNEW), and National Airspace Voice Switch (NVS).

Krakowski said implementation of these multiple systems alongside existing air traffic control systems will be complex.

“NextGen is an evolutionary process, and existing systems must be sustained as we transition,” he said. “NextGen builds on legacy systems to increase capability in today’s National Airspace System, adds new performance-based procedures and routes, and ultimately delivers programs that transform the NAS. As it is implemented, NextGen will gradually allow aircraft to safely fly more closely together on more direct routes, reducing delays, and providing benefits for the environment and the economy through reductions in carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and noise.”

Expanding capacity of the air traffic control system is essential to keep up with the demands of aviation. 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 economic downturn has given some breathing room. Krakowski said the number of operations the FAA handled in February dropped about 11 percent compared with the previous year, from 1.17 million in February of 2008 to 1.04 million in 2009. But demand is expected to rise as the economy recovers.

Some progress also is being made in physical facilities on the ground, with new runways opening in several large airports in 2008. A new runway at Dulles International Airport near Washington has the capacity to handle an additional 100,000 flights a year.

Despite progress, the Government Accountability Office 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.

But GAO has taken NextGen off its list of high-risk programs, where it has been since 1995, and funding for the program is expected to increase in coming years. Funding for fiscal 2009 is expected to be $688 million, up from $202 million for fiscal 2008. The agency is asking for $800 million for 2010. FAA also received $200 million in economic stimulus funds for repairs and upgrade to air traffic facilities.

Airline industry buy-in for the technology also is crucial for the NextGen program.

“Because the realization of NextGen benefits is integrally linked to how quickly the operators equip their aircraft, it is imperative that the FAA work closely with industry on NextGen deployment,” Krakowski said.

But 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.

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.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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