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ATC upgrades getting sidetracked by infighting

Air traffic control modernization has been sidetracked by the unnecessary "food fight" over FAA funding, AOPA President Phil Boyer told the air traffic controllers union on September 12.

Rather than pitting the controllers, general aviation, and the airlines against each other over changing the way the agency is funded, the FAA should have been working on "creating the new system by talking to the people behind the equipment, and doing so without alienating the community that it is designed to serve," Boyer said.

"There's always been enough money for what FAA says NextGen will cost, even though we don't know yet exactly what we're going to buy."

NextGen is the FAA's plan to transform the air traffic control system by creating a networked system with aircraft and ground constantly exchanging data, allowing more efficient use of the airspace, and reducing the amount of human interaction necessary to maintain aircraft separation. FAA calls ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) the "backbone technology" that is supposed to enable the rest of NextGen.

But ADS-B is already off to a rocky start, according to Boyer. "The FAA issued the contract to build Phase 1 of this new technology without standards or procedures, without an NPRM vetted by the public and industry, and without total buy-in by the airlines as to if they'll really equip for NextGen."

He said that AOPA was "all for" ADS-B when it was proposed 15 years ago, particularly since it brought with it the promise of traffic and weather in the cockpit through the same datalink. AOPA participates in ADS-B demonstration programs and hosts an ADS-B ground station at its Frederick, Maryland, headquarters. Boyer's personal aircraft and AOPA company aircraft are ADS-B equipped.

"But we've waited so long that we're now getting weather information on a handheld GPS in the smallest of GA aircraft. ADS-B is a better surveillance technology than radar because it is faster and more precise; some of the original GA benefits of ADS-B are quickly being overtaken by new technologies."

Turning to an airline pilot who was also addressing the controllers' conference, Boyer said, "Your TCAS systems are state of the art. Yet if I flew my 172, which is fully equipped with what the FAA says is the future of air traffic surveillance, next to a Delta airliner and I didn't have my Mode C turned on, Delta couldn't see me."

The FAA has yet to say whether ADS-B, with its faster response time and greater accuracy, will be used to replace Mode C transponders.

And Boyer noted that while the FAA has been claiming that there isn't enough money from the current aviation taxes to build NextGen, H.R.2881 (the House FAA funding bill currently in the Ways and Means Committee) would provide some $5 billion for ADS-B and NextGen over the next four years.

"Five billion dollars is about as much as I would want to give the FAA without knowing exactly what they're going to spend it on," Boyer said.

September 14, 2007

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