NextGen on course to make aviation safer and cleaner
19 June 2014, 4:15 p.m. EDT
By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications
“Next Generation [NextGen] air traffic control technology transforms how we look at and manage air traffic,” said Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, addressing a capacity audience at AIAA’s AVIATION 2014 Forum. Speaking on “NextGen Implementation: Challenge and Opportunities in an International Context,” Whitaker discussed where NextGen implementation stands now, some of the challenges it still faces, and how the system helps reduce cost, noise and environmental pollution.
He began by reviewing the past challenges that have hampered growth in aviation – including recessions, mergers, deregulation, wars and terrorism. He then said three factors are converging to make the next 25 years a very good time for aerospace: First, the end of mergers, which will bring about stability in the airlines; second, new users of the National Airspace System – commercial space and unmanned aerial systems, or UASs; and third, NextGen.
Whitaker called NextGen a “massive and necessary undertaking, with the final part nearing completion.” He said the program “has allowed us to make the jump from ground-based systems to satellite systems,” with upgrades at our major air traffic control [ATC] centers to be done “by next spring.”
Whitaker noted that all this has been done during normal operations, “while the system runs,” so there has been “little margin for error.” He assured the audience that the next integration and installation of automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast, or ADS-B, technology at each of the nation’s Terminal Radar Approach Control centers would be complete by 2016, followed by work on the hundreds of ATC towers around the nation. He said, “Much like an iPad, which is a nice piece of technology that doesn’t do much without its apps, NextGen can’t do much without installation – and as we move forward we will be able to use more and more of the system.”
To illustrate NextGen’s ability to manage traffic effectively, Whitaker showed a dramatic video of how the system has saved millions of dollars, cut thousands of pounds of carbon emissions, and made access to the NAS around Houston safer and more economical for airlines. NextGen has enabled air traffic in the Houston area to eliminate the costly “step-down” landing pattern, allowing instead for an optimized descent path from 36,000 feet to the runway threshold, eliminating nearly 60 maneuvers that wasted time and increased carbon emissions.
In answering audience questions, Whitaker was blunt. No, there will not be an exception for general aviation, pilots will have to have ASD-B in their cockpits – with the weather and other information it provides pilots, he said, “it’s hard to argue that there are no benefits for general aviation.” Yes, the FAA is working on cybersecurity, because NextGen “is so Internet dependent, we are constantly working on monitoring and ensuring network safety.” Yes, the FAA has consulted with NASA, the Department of Defense, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the implementation of NextGen, and is also working extensively with Mexico and Canada.
As for unmanned aircraft operators wondering if they will be able to operate in the NAS now that NextGen is implemented, Whitaker reassured them that “the rule [for allowing UAS operations in the NAS] is on track and will be out this year.” No, the FAA will not turn air traffic control and other NAS management tasks to private industry anytime soon, and no, NextGen doesn’t mean that air traffic controllers are going to disappear – the system will still need humans to make it work.
Whitaker’s talk left no doubt that NextGen is here to stay and that it will make our increasingly crowded skies more manageable.
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