President's Position

12 years to solve

November 1, 2007

Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA for more than 15 years.

In the past 60 days the FAA has taken two somewhat bold steps in fulfilling the promise of a Next Generation Air Traffic System (NextGen).

But at the same time, the call for user fees to fund NextGen has progressed without a shopping list of how the dollars would be spent. The two announcements now give general aviation and pilots and owners a glimpse into the future, even though it's a hazy one. The news surrounds the initial steps of changing from a system of radar surveillance to GPS position by datalink. The acronym for the technology is ADS-B, automatic dependant surveillance-broadcast. Your association has participated in the development and watched closely the results of experiments for more than a decade.

Basically, if an airplane is GPS equipped it can very accurately pinpoint its position, and then transmit (hence the broadcast word) this position to the ground for depiction on a radar-like screen for air traffic control. The position can also be broadcast to other airplanes in the area for traffic awareness. And, since a datalink of some sort is needed to accomplish this task, why not use the return link to provide weather, traffic, and other information on a display in the cockpit?

Last month the agency proposed a long-term strategy to do so using ADS-B, which allows them to save billions of dollars over the lifespan of the technology, since it is much cheaper than ground-based radar. The first of these two bold steps was the FAA awarding a $1.8 billion contract to ITT to set up a nationwide infrastructure of transceivers and manage the system for the agency. The second was a notice of proposed rulemaking that recommends a mandatory equipage of ADS-B for all airplanes operating in controlled airspace by 2020. For most AOPA members, that means the purchase of a new black box.

The FAA wants all aircraft flying above 10,000 feet msl, or operating in or near Class B and C airspace to have ADS-B (aircraft operating above FL240 will need a Mode S transponder with what's termed an extended squitter). I recall my shelling out many dollars when, in the late 1980s, there was a mandate for equipping all airplanes with a transponder and Mode C altitude encoding. After a Los Angeles-area midair between an airliner and single-engine airplane this hastily imposed mandate caught many of us by surprise, and restricted access to airports nearly overnight. The good news is that 2020 is the very soonest any mandatory equipage will be. As an aircraft owner, faced with rising fuel and insurance costs, maintenance, and hangar rents, I am very thankful that 2020 is more than 12 years away.

Historically, AOPA has supported the FAA's efforts on ADS-B in Alaska and the Ohio River valley to research and develop the technology. At our Frederick, Maryland, headquarters, two AOPA airplanes and my own Cessna Skyhawk are ADS-B-equipped. In addition we have a ground-based transceiver for datalink with equipped aircraft. We have used this equipment to demonstrate the technology to other pilots, FAA personnel, and members of Congress. Weather and traffic are up-linked to our ADS-B aircraft along with others in the area that have elected to install this equipment in their cockpits. However, all aircraft must still carry a Mode C transponder, since that's the primary surveillance system of today. AOPA had anticipated ADS-B boxes replacing Mode C transponders when fully implemented in 2020; unfortunately the FAA proposal now indicates that will not be the case, since in terminal areas the transponder is required to activate the airlines' present collision avoidance system. This is a real blow to those of us who thought we were moving to a totally self-contained NextGen surveillance system.

Although 12 years away—minimum—and based on today's cost of the limited avionics available for ADS-B, the equipment would cost aircraft owners a minimum of $8,000 to $10,000 for the same access they have today with their transponder, and even more if pilots want a cockpit display to receive information.

With the time we all have before the mandate kicks in, AOPA anticipates that avionics vendors will get creative, and find ways to reduce the costs. All of us can recall the initial price for loran or even GPS receivers and how that has changed. And, in a recent meeting on the avionics cost issue, I was shown a description of a combined Mode C/ADS-B system the size of today's current transponder.

As always, cost and benefit to the average aircraft owner is our primary concern in the decade-plus we have before mandated equipage. However, there are some critical questions that must also be addressed by the FAA and government. Should subsidies or tax credits be given to owners who equip? Can ADS-B perform at least as well as radar? When will the FAA turn off all radars in order to save the promised billions of dollars? Will the cost-conscious airlines find benefit in this technology and meet the mandated dates? The airline association is already questioning the value/benefit equation of ADS-B.

None of these questions have solid answers and we have lots more questions, but now that the proposed rule is open for public debate, the FAA needs to provide the answers. If you are interested in filing comments to the rule making, look for a full assessment and suggested points to make, depending on the category of airplane you own and fly, on AOPA Online and in AOPA ePilot.

Thank goodness we have 12 more years.