|FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. Photo: FAA|
[Avionics Today 10-23-2015] FAA Administrator Michael Huerta addressed the Aero Club of Washington, D.C. Oct. 21, to speak on the organization’s forward trajectory in NextGen initiatives as well as the agency’s possible restructure under reauthorization.
Huerta touted progress in the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar Next Generation Air Traffic Modernization initiative, which aims to upgrade the U.S. national Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, calling it “arguably the most ambitious project we’ve taken on as an agency.”
Despite the wide swath of the projects, as well as criticisms and slow downs in previous years, Huerta called attention to several milestones the organization has seen in the last year.
“In March, we achieved one of our most significant NextGen milestones to date: Completing the deployment of the En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, at our en route air traffic control centers here in the continental United States.
ERAM is a key element in the NextGen foundation, and it gives us the technological horsepower to support other key pieces,” said Huerta.
The new ERAM system, which successfully took over as the primary ATC architecture from the previous En Route Host computer system earlier this year, is designed to support systems such as satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and will also eventually allow for advanced ATC practices such as Terminal Flight Data Management (TFDM) and Required Navigation Performance/Area Navigation (RNP/RNAV). While the project ran at least four years over schedule and at least $370 million over budget, the 2015 rollout has proved successful thus far, despite one software glitch that delayed flights in the Washington, D.C. area in August.
The administrator also drew attention to the agencies progress in ADS-B, for which the FAA completed the installation of 634 ground transceivers last year. The transceivers comprise the infrastructure of ADS-B, the core technology that aims to move the aviation industry from a radar-based air traffic system to a satellite-based system. While Bruce Decleene, manager of the flight technologies and procedures division at the FAA, told attendees at the Avionics for NextGen conference last week that the compliance numbers are still “far under” what the agency would like to see for operator equipage, the ground stations ensure that operators can fly using the procedures when equipage is mandated on Jan. 1, 2020.
Thus far, the FAA’s Data Communications (Data Comm) trials between pilots and controllers at Newark, N.J., and Memphis, Tenn., and those recently deployed in Houston, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah, have been progressing as planned and seeing results, according to Huerta. Experts in a panel at the Avionics for NextGen DataComm panel earlier this month echoed the sentiment, although noting that there were still some bugs to work out in the text-message like technology, which promises to ease congestion on ATC frequencies and reduce the potential for misunderstanding critical safety information. With the trials going according to plan, Huerta noted that the initiative was on track for an expanded rollout in coming years.
“We’re on track to deliver Data Comm to more than 50 air traffic control towers and [Terminal Radar Approach Control centers] TRACONs in 2016, and we expect it will be in our large en route centers in 2019,” said Huerta.
“In fact, we now have more satellite-based procedures in our skies nationwide than radar-based procedures. These procedures, along with efforts such as Wake Turbulence Re-categorization — or Wake RECAT — are resulting in millions of dollars in fuel savings for the airlines, with corresponding reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases,” Huerta added, noting that just this month, FedEx shared with the NextGen Advisory Committee that Wake RECAT has saved the cargo carrier over 10 million gallons of fuel.
Funding instability has the ability to throw these programs from their forward trajectory, however, particularly with Congress’ inability to pass a full-on reauthorization bill in September, when the FAA 2012 Federal Modernization Reform Act (FMRA) officially ran out.
“As all of you know, Congress recently approved a short-term extension that keeps the FAA authorized through March of 2016. While this will keep us running for a few more months, I think we all know that short-term extensions are far from ideal. We are hopeful Congress will act soon to provide us with a long-term reauthorization that will provide the FAA with the tools necessary to meet the demands of the future and to minimize disruption to the progress we’ve already made,” said Huerta.
With lawmakers considering a bill proposed by Congressman John Mica to privatize the Air Traffic Control sector of the FAA during the reauthorization, Huerta noted he was “open to having this discussion.” But pushed that any reauthorization should aim to remedy the current funding problems the agency is up against.
“In our view, the most important problems reauthorization should fix are budget instability and the lack of predictability and flexibility to execute our priorities,” Huerta said.