ATM Modernization

NextGen is a Complex Recipe for Italian Wedding Soup

By S.L. Fuller | November 16, 2017

Michele Merkle, director of NextGen National Airpsace System (NAS) Systems Engineering and Integration, gives the keynote speech on the second day of Avionics for NextGen 2017. Photo by Vince Lim

NextGen is Italian wedding soup. The components that make up the initiative that is the FAA’s NextGen are the ingredients. And the way those parts interact with each other make up the recipe. That’s how Michele Merkle, director of NextGen National Airpsace System (NAS) Systems Engineering and Integration, described it during her keynote speech on the second day of Avionics for NextGen, hosted by Avionics in Herndon, Virginia.

“But as cook, to me, NextGen is just one really complicated recipe with a lot of special ingredients,” Merkle said. “It's not just about ground infrastructure or air-ground technology or controller tools. NextGen is about aligning the investments on the aircraft and on the ground. It's about ensuring that our work force — our pilots, controllers, dispatchers and traffic flow managers are all properly trained. Not just in the, 'what to do,' but 'why to do it.' And it's about ensuring that policies and procedures are in place.

“Wedding soup requires many different painstaking ingredients that are carefully chosen from special suppliers,” she continued. “They all get cooked separately and are integrated at the end for the final project. Making wedding soup is not unlike making NextGen.”

In this extended metaphor, the foundation of the soup — the broth — is the NAS for NextGen. “Special suppliers” add the enabling technologies: communication, navigation, surveillance, system-wide information management (SWIM), improved processing and weather distribution, Merkle said.

“Add in the appropriate equipage, a well-trained workforce, new policies and procedures, and when it all comes together, all these different ingredients in an integrated fashion, you have a completely new system in the end: A transformed NAS,” she explained. “But we have to bring these many ingredients together — all of us — to achieve the full benefits of a modernized system.”

As for the adage, “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Merkle said the FAA is counting on galvanizing as many cooks as it can. Collaboration is a key to the success of NextGen, she said.

Part of this collaboration is the FAA’s NextGen Advisory Committee, referred to as “the NAC,” run under the RTCA. It is currently chaired by David Bronczek, president and COO of FedEx Corp. Membership comprises stakeholders from the government, military, avionics, airlines, airports, air traffic control and others.

Merkle said that NextGen has worked with the NAC every step of the way, including the 2010 effort to validate NextGen mid-term concept of operations, the recent effort to strategize performance-based navigation (PBN) in the NAS and more. According to Merkle, the industry has advised each time that the FAA needs to move toward trajectory-based operations (TBO). The NAC asked the FAA to clarify its vision for TBO, and the FAA responded by documenting its vision through, and beyond, 2025.

TBO, Merkle explained, is an air traffic method for strategically planning, managing and optimizing flight operations throughout an air transportation system. Time, information exchange between the aircraft and the ground systems, and the aircraft’s ability to fly precise paths in time and space, she continued, is used to predict and balance demanding capacity throughout the flight.

“TBO has always been a goal for NextGen modernization. When NextGen unlocks the full power of TBO, the FAA will go from knowing exactly where an aircraft is, to precisely where an aircraft will be at precise points in time and space,” Merkle said. “This will greatly improve both strategic planning and tactical flow management and address many of today's operational shortfalls.”

Merkle has been working on NextGen since its inception. Spending more than a decade on the initiative, she’s seen concepts get thrown out for one reason or another. TBO, however, has survived.

Merkle laid out the benefits TBO could yield. These included:

  • TBO will help maximize throughput in airspace and airports
  • Improved operational predictability and overall system performance through approved end-to-end strategic planning
  • Improved flight efficiency
  • Increased flexibility

TBO wouldn’t be applied across the NAS in exactly the same way. It would be available to everyone, but “scaled appropriately to satisfy operational conditions,” Merkle said. “The determination of how to apply TBO will be driven by the operational needs and the goals we target together,” she said.

What section of the NAS will the FAA target to get on the path to TBO? Merkle answered that during her speech: the northeast corridor. That’s the area between Boston and Washington, D.C. Why has the FAA defined it as the next joint priority? “Because it is easily among the most congested airspace in the world,” she said. The goal, again, is to introduce TBO operations to the entire NAS. But the northeast corridor will be first to work out its own kinks. Merkle said the NAC recommended and approved TBO objectives for the northeast corridor:

  • Deconflict arrivals in the New York airspace
  • Improve departure, throughput from New York and Philadelphia
  • Approve arrival throughput into New York and Philadelphia
  • Ease key airspace congestion points that restrict the northeast corridor's throughput
  • Improve situational awareness and flow management across the northeast corridor
  • Address community noise caused by newly deployed PBN flight paths

While the FAA works on that, it’s up to operators to equip with the enabling technologies. Those are largely based around communication, navigation and surveillance — including ADS-B Out. (Merkle reminded conference attendees that the Jan. 1, 2020, deadline has not budged.)

The FAA has incentivized data communications equipage, Merkle said. She explained that more than 1,600 aircraft have equipped under the program — the FAA’s goal is 1,900 equipped aircraft by 2019. Almost 4,000 aircraft are equipped with data comm, and air traffic controllers are processing more than 38,000 operations a week, Merkle said. This is a 75% increase since the beginning of the year. In terms of navigation, PBN is a main target.

“For three years now, GPS procedures have outnumbered old ground-based navigation routes,” Merkle said. “There are over 8,000 PBN procedures throughout the NAS. But not all eligible operations are flying these planned PBN procedures at the core 30 airports.”

The reason for this, she continued, includes mixed equipage and inadequate training.

Aside from CNS, the FAA is looking to leverage time of arrival control and data sharing between aircraft, airline operation centers and the FAA, Merkle said. This has begun with improvements to flight planning data and continuing onto real-time data sharing.

“Achieving a TBO vision requires a clear understanding and commitment by all stakeholders. It requires a system of systems approach to change management,” Merkle said. “Change management of course includes the evolution of technology, procedures, policy and training. But more challenging is cultural change. We need to ensure that industry and FAA workforce are willing to do things differently to get a different result than we've gotten in the past.”

Reaching the FAA’s 2025 TBO goals requires all stakeholders to share those goals — not just the agency. This means that the industry needs to trust the investments it has already made. Items like en route data comm and surface automation have not yet been fully realized, although Merkle said they are forthcoming.

“It's important that we continue to align our air and our ground investments,” Merkle said.

She, somewhat indirectly, recognized that the promise of NextGen has taken significantly longer than planned to come to fruition.

“So is it soup yet?” Merkle offered of the FAA’s complicated recipe. “We're almost there.”

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