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Despite FAA reauthorization, NextGen questions persist

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A group of aeropolitical heavyweights gathered in Washington Wednesday to discuss the US's continuing, and often slow, effort to transition to a satellite-based ATC system. Given that FAA reauthorization legislation was finally passed in February, you might expect there would be some optimism over the country's move to “NextGen” ATC after years of uncertainty created by political inertia.

But that's not what I found at the offices of the Bipartisan Policy Center, where political and aviation experts came together to comment on a new policy paper presented by the Eno Center for Transportation titled “NextGen: Aligning Costs, Benefits and Political Leadership.”

The Eno report's writer, Sakib bin Salam, noted that there are “significant differences” within the air transport industry over the validity of FAA's projections on airspace efficiency benefits to be gained from NextGen. The agency has said that once NextGen is fully implemented by 2025, flight delays will lower nationally by 25-30% and aggregate aircraft fuel use will decrease by 25%. But, according to bin Salam, “there are still a lot of naysayers and critics in the [airline] industry who don't really buy into FAA's estimates.”

Despite the passage of an FAA bill that pushes forward NextGen implementation, the aircraft “equipage dilemma” has not been resolved, bin Salam said. “Right now, operators are expected to pay for the equipment” to enable NextGen functionality, he explained. “Operators haven't been able to make a solid business case for investing in NextGen … The [satellite] infrastructure is no good if the operators won't invest in the proper equipment.”

Airlines for America (A4A) senior VP-legislative and regulatory policy Sharon Pinkerton said US carriers have “questions about [NextGen's] benefits and questions about FAA's ability to deliver.” Indeed, Jeffrey Shane, formerly the US Dept. of Transportation's (DOT) undersecretary for policy, recalled that FAA staff was initially skeptical about NextGen prior to DOT officially moving forward with the initiative in 2004.

“It's interesting in retrospect to ask whether that assessment [by some FAA staff] was actually true, that launching NextGen was too bold,” Shane said.

David Plavin, formerly president of Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), cautioned that just implementing NextGen ATC won't be sufficent to meet future air traffic demand. “The top 17 US airports accounted for 50% of air traffic in the US last year,” he said. “So we need runways … The whole conversation [about NextGen] needs to be expanded.” Satellite ATC will “help a lot” in alleviating system congestion, but unless major US airports' physical infrastructure also expands, “it's not enough,” Plavin commented.

Noting that the original target for full NextGen implementation was 2014, former US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who announced the formation of the satellite-based ATC program in 2004, said the lack of progress over the last eight years—and the continued uncertainty over financing—“is really frustrating.” He blamed a “lack of political leadership” and warned that the US is in danger of falling behind in all areas of transportation infrastructure, not just ATC.

“Other countries are not taking their foot off the pedal” in terms of infrastructure investment, Mineta said. “The problem right now [in Washington] is that people can't make the distinction between spending that is investment and spending that is consumption. I'm afraid that in 15 years [we in the US are] going to be standing around with our shorts around our ankles and wondering, ‘What happened?' [Inadequate investment in NextGen and other US transportation infrastructure] really concerns me.”

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