Despite funding issues, NextGen and ADS-B advance

  • 24-Jun-2011 08:58 EDT

All aircraft, including those used in general aviation, must be equipped with certain ADS-B equipment by 2020.

With a cut in funding for NextGen likely, the President of the FAA advisory group RTCA Inc. said at a recent conference that government agencies and industry will have to pick up the slack.

NextGen is a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. national airspace system (NAS) to make travel more convenient and dependable by, among other things, replacing the radar-based navigation system with a GPS-based one. That system is just starting to be installed, but progress can be made in other NextGen areas immediately, RTCA President Margaret Jenny said at the June 15-16 symposium, the theme of which was “Accelerating NextGen Through Public-Private Partnership.”

RTCA is a private, not-for-profit corporation that provides to the FAA consensus-based recommendations regarding communications, navigation, surveillance, and air traffic management system issues.

"If the tag line weren't already taken, I would summarize the message of symposium as ‘Lean Forward,’” she said in summarizing the June 15-16 RTCA Symposium in Washington, DC. "Speaker after speaker over the past two days had a similar message—we are indeed at a tipping point, with positive forward momentum. But our drive to modernize the air transportation system faces significant challenges, not the least of which is the likely cuts to the NextGen budget. We must do more with less. Challenges can also be opportunities. It can be a catalyst to force us, as a community, to set clear priorities and make the tough decisions about where we apply our resources.”

Earlier in her presentation, Jenny identified several areas in which progress can be made.

“Borrowing from the sentiments expressed by keynote speaker Lorraine Bolsinger, GE Aviation Systems, we can implement Nav Lean, soon,” she said. “We can implement airspace changes today. We can implement RNP [required navigation performance] procedures that are more than overlays today. We can implement data sharing to enhance shared situational awareness today. We can do all of this without one additional piece of equipment in the cockpit.

“Next, we can accelerate the implementation of DataComm applications using existing standards. We can implement ERAM [en route automation modernization] across the NAS. We can implement TBFM [time-based flight management]. These implementations will deliver benefits that will in turn encourage investments in the next phase of NextGen—capabilities enabled by DataComm, ADS-B [automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast], and SWIM [system wide information management].”

In her final words to the symposium, she said: “It is clear from all the panels that we are of one mind about the need to move forward with NextGen, and that the only way to succeed is to get on with the job of delivering early benefits and let the confidence that creates help us close the business case for the investment needed.”

Also speaking at the symposium was FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who noted that the NextGen Advisory Committee established by the FAA and RTCA is working hard to dialogue with industry on how to prioritize the elements of NextGen. One of the major unresolved issues is how the upgrading of avionics to accommodate NextGen is funded. There have been calls for the FAA to provide funding. All aircraft, including those used in general aviation, must be equipped with ADS-B equipment (for outbound communication) by 2020 if operating in Classes A, B, C, and certain other airspace categories.

“We very much need this input,” he said. “As we go forward, I think we can all agree that equipage is a critical building block for NextGen. And everyone will bear the responsibility of modernizing our system. The FAA cannot do NextGen alone. This must be a partnership. We have asked the NextGen Advisory Committee to look at the issue of equipage and come back to us in the fall with a consensus proposal. We also know there are a number of private proposals. We’re open to all ideas. These are tough economic times and we need to balance our fiscal restraints with the need for equipage.

“Building the infrastructure for NextGen, without all of us working to equip the aircraft, is like building a great race car without tires. We can sit in the garage and rev up, but we’re not going anywhere.”

Babbitt made mention of several companies that to some degree have self-funded equipage and which are now “adding real dollars to the bottom line.” Southwest Airlines, for example, is using GPS-based RNP approaches at “dozens” of airports and estimates annual fuel cost savings of $60 million once it is able to use RNP systemwide. Alaska Airlines estimates it would have had to cancel 729 flights into Juneau last year were it not for GPS-based RNP approach capability.

More than 250 of RNP procedures are now published in the U.S. and are available for use by nearly 2000 airline and business aviation aircraft, Babbitt said. “We are working on more.”

ADS-B-equipped helicopters operating routes in the Gulf of Mexico are saving 100 lb of fuel and 5-10 min of flight time per flight, Babbitt reported. Because there is no radar coverage in the Gulf, helicopters used to have to follow inefficient, nonlinear routes.

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