The NextGen Institute’s annual public meeting brought together top government and industry aviation leaders to discuss the progress of FAA’s implementation of NextGen, and the challenges that lie ahead, though speakers could provide few specifics as to how to address problems that have delayed full-scale implementation.
“As a business proposition, it’s essentially a no-brainer,” said House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), referring to the benefits NextGen will produce for the aviation industry, such as the savings in jet fuel and increased number of flights for airlines. “The risk is a timing delay. But it’s the human side of it, not the technology side of it."
The “human side” is primarily the relationship between government and industry in implementing NextGen. Operators — airlines and private aircraft owners — need to invest in retrofitting existing fleets with avionics to capable of supporting automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and DataComm.
But there are several challenges that lie between today’s segmented NextGen implementation and FAA’s full-scale modernization of the U.S. air transportation system. Most notable, according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), is securing long-term funding for NextGen research, testing and implementation.
“The FAA faces major challenges,” said Costello. “Everyone who believes in NextGen … will have to go to Capitol Hill and tell members of Congress that we need the funding to go forward in a permanent way.”
Costello also called on his fellow lawmakers to nominate Michael Huerta, who has been serving in an acting capacity since December, as the permanent FAA administrator, a move which Costello said will speed NextGen implementation by giving all government and industry stakeholders a clear path forward.
Former FAA administrator Randy Babbitt at the meeting said the airlines that have already deployed NextGen technologies and flight procedures have seen significant savings in jet fuel per flight, with United Airlines saving 950 gallons of jet fuel per flight — a savings of almost $1,000 per flight.
“From an operators perspective, for the use of NextGen, fuel accounts for 40 percent of all their costs,” said Babbit. “We’re asking a lot of people to equip before we have anything for them to use, and they’re waiting for the use before they equip, so we need to find ways to step forward together. Bottom line, I think that this industry needs to ensure that the innovators and the early adapters are given rewards for their leadership, for their investments and to incentivize others I think we have to stay in line with the use that they want and that is that the best equipped will in fact be the best served.”
The former FAA chief noted that Southwest Airlines invested a significant amount of money to equip their aircraft and train all of their pilots to fly Required Navigation Performance procedures, but the airline has not seen a full return on investment because of the delays in the full-scale implementation of NextGen.
Huerta expressed confidence FAA is on track with NextGen, but urged continued government and industry cooperation.
“Under traditional ways of doing business, redesign of airspace procedures could take anywhere from five to 10 years. But using these more collaborative approaches, we actually dramatically improve the airspace in a metropolitan area in as little as three years,” said Huerta. “It's truly an exciting time in aviation history and NextGen is preeminent to ensuring that we are able to operate the world’s safest air transportation system for many, many years to come.”