NextGen: What's the future of ATC?

March 15, 2007

NextGen: What's the future of ATC?

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Whether you call it NextGen or NGATS, the critical questions for AOPA members are: "What the heck is it, will it fix system congestion, and what's it going to cost me?"

AOPA President Phil Boyer led a panel of industry experts at an RTCA symposium on March 14 in a discussion on where we are and where we're going in the development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen or NGATS) - a so-called "performance-based" air traffic control and management system. And in the audience were FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgell.

"I think it's key that AOPA members understand that NextGen is more than equipment, it's integrated information management, so that we pilots in the air and the air traffic managers on the ground all have the same picture," said Boyer. "It's having the airplane and the ground connected in a virtual network for a constant exchange of information.

"And it's also important to know that AOPA's unwavering stance is that NextGen must provide significant benefits to GA pilots at an affordable cost."

Much of NextGen is already here, according to panel member Judy Marks of Lockheed Martin. "We're already on the continuum. The technology is there, the technology providers are ready, and we're now adding the procedures," Marks said. Flight service station modernization and its integrated, nationwide information network is another example of NextGen progress.

The core technology is satellite-based navigation, which GA pilots were the first to adopt with the widespread use of GPS. ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) is considered the backbone of NextGen because it provides precise aircraft position, altitude, speed, and intent information to other aircraft in the air as well as controllers on the ground.

GA pilots have been demonstrating the value of ADS-B with a weather datalink in Alaska. The FAA is expanding the ADS-B ground infrastructure along the Eastern Seaboard and into the Ohio Valley as it works toward full nationwide deployment.

But will NextGen be the panacea for system congestion? "As former AOPA President John Baker used to say, we've never left one up there yet. Do we have the runway capacity?" Boyer asked the panel.

"We're going to have to have more runways," said Kevin Brown, vice president and general manager of Boeing's air traffic management division.

And Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives, noted airport capital needs, including money for additional runway capacity, were under-funded by about $3 billion a year.

Finally, the cost. The FAA estimates it will spend $15 to $22 billion on NextGen, and the airlines and GA will spend up to $22 billion though the year 2025 to equip so that pilots can use all of the NextGen features.

"We've yet to see a business case made for either side of that equation," said James May, Air Transportation Association president and CEO, a somewhat surprising statement from the airlines, supporters of the FAA's arguments that GA taxes must be increased and user fees charged in order to pay for ATC modernization.

"But it comes back to our point," said Boyer after the symposium. "We agree we need to modernize, but the benefits must exceed the costs. NextGen has great promise for GA, but it must be affordable."

RTCA is the congressionally chartered technical organization that sets standards for aircraft and avionics and advises the FAA on systems management. Boyer is RTCA's honorary chairman this year.

March 15, 2007