General aviation testimony offers NextGen priorities

September 12, 2012

General aviation is realizing early benefits from the transition to a satellite-based air transportation system, but the ultimate cost to users remains unclear, making it critical to preserve the “legacy system” into the future, National Business Aviation Association President and CEO Ed Bolen told a congressional subcommittee on Sept.12.

“The successful implementation of NextGen is critical to the future of our air transportation system and U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace,” added Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee.

Bolen presented a general aviation perspective on air traffic system modernization during a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s aviation subcommittee. The hearing reviewed FAA management of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program. AOPA worked collaboratively on the testimony with Bolen, who also is vice chairman and immediate past chairman of RTCA, which provides the FAA with technical and policy advice based on industry review and consensus, including a NextGen Advisory Committee.

General aviation is now benefiting from expanded availability of instrument approaches enabled by Wide Area Augmentation System technology (WAAS), and new navigation routes through busy terminal airspace (T-routes), he said.  

That progress—marked by the existence of 12,131 GPS-based instrument approaches compared to 6,628 ground-based instrument approaches as of July 2012—should make continued development and implementation a priority for the FAA, “with a clear timeline established for completing the implementation process,” Bolen said.

Costs and benefits

The FAA could alleviate lingering user uncertainty about costs and benefits of equipping aircraft early in the transition by laying out a clear case that “firmly establishes system requirements, incentivizes early adoption, and provides accountability through the establishment of a comprehensive timeline and budget,” Bolen said in prepared remarks.

Maintaining legacy infrastructure will remain critical to safety and system access during the transition, he said, urging that consideration be given to how that infrastructure’s maintenance will be funded and managed.

Noting RTCA’s contributions to NextGen planning, Bolen called for the committee’s continued support for the panel, which was founded in 1935 in response to an FAA request for “industry-vetted” recommendations. RTCA should remain “the forum for receiving FAA tasks, achieving industry consensus, and providing the FAA with consensus-based recommendations regarding NextGen.”

“The critical benchmarks for general aviation operators are increased all-weather access to airports nationwide, the ability to navigate efficiently through busy metroplex airspace when necessary, and the reduction of conflicts with commercial traffic operating at vital airports,” he said.

Bolen called for the FAA to adopt an integrated budget and timeline for achieving NextGen milestones which aid users facing the need to devise strategies and cost-management plans for upgrading their aircraft systems.

But an “added level of uncertainty” in the general aviation sector has arisen from potential budget cuts looming under sequestration, if deficit-reduction negotiations fail.

“Potential cuts in FAA funding overall, and NextGen funding in particular, would have a severe impact on the NextGen implementation process,” he said.

“We commend the House aviation subcommittee for holding this important hearing and for giving the general aviation community an opportunity to discuss both the benefits and possible upcoming challenges of the NextGen program,” said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs.