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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: Equipage Tasking

The next few months could be formative in specifying the types of onboard equipment aircraft will need to exploit Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) “mid-term” efficiencies planned by 2018.

RTCA’s NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), a high-level industry and government group formed last fall to advise FAA on NextGen implementation, has received an ambitious tasking request from the agency. FAA asks that by May, the committee prioritize NextGen mid-term operations that are dependent on equipment and then recommend aircraft types or user groups (airlines, general aviation, the military, etc.) that should be considered for operational or financial incentives to equip with new avionics. By September, for each of the user groups identified in the first phase, the NAC should identify incentives to “close the business case” for equipage as well as the delivery mechanism for incentives and a timetable for implementation.

The FAA tasking request was briefed to the NAC at its second full meeting, Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C., a cramped gathering held in a ninth floor conference room with a prominent view of the nearby U.S. Capitol dome. The location was fitting; that very day, the new Republican leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011, putting long-term FAA funding on a fast track after 17 budget extensions. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, was moving forward with its own reauthorization bill.

Political determinations could overtake the industry’s careful consensus-building exercise on NextGen, a motivating factor behind the tasking request.

“We’re at a stage in the implementation of NextGen where equipage issues are really more and more front-and-center of our ability to implement and show benefits and bring projects forward,” Julie Oettinger, FAA assistant administrator for Policy, International Affairs and Environment, told the committee.

“I don’t know that many of us would have guessed that this new Congress would show up at the beginning of the year and that FAA reauthorization would top the agenda,” she said. “As we speak, there are debates about the future of NextGen. In order to have an impact on that debate, we need to be able to bring these issues forward as quickly as possible.”

Despite assurances, the temptation as always is to wonder whether this particular committee, an outgrowth of the former RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force, will have a substantial impact on shaping NextGen. That the task force recommendations were largely incorporated in FAA’s NextGen Implementation Plan suggests the NAC also will be meaningful, as does its membership. The committee is chaired by JetBlue CEO Dave Barger, who was in Washington a week earlier announcing an FAA-funded program to outfit 35 JetBlue A320s with ADS-B capability (see article, Page 8).

The committee’s designated federal official is FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta, No. 2 on the agency’s depth chart. Other senior FAA executives have seats at the table, including Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of the Air Traffic Organization.

The linkage with FAA may be tight, but herding aviation’s other cats toward consensus on NextGen adoption will be challenging. Potential fissures were revealed at the Feb. 11 meeting. Following Oettinger’s briefing on equipage tasking, Craig Fuller, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), asked if there is a “presumption” of the types of equipment that will be specified, no doubt of concern to AOPA’s 414,000 members. Maj. Gen. Brett Williams, representing the U.S. Air Force, reminded the committee that unmanned aircraft systems will become increasingly important to airspace operations. He also explained that incentives aimed at easing equipage for commercial operators won’t necessarily work for the military.

Airlines play a prominent role on the NAC, with airline co-chairmen leading each of three working groups: Business Case and Performance Metrics (Delta), Airspace Procedures (US Airways) and Integrated Capabilities (Alaska Airlines). During discussion of the Business Case working group, the point was made that despite the importance of equipment, equipment manufacturers were not represented. The avionics industry does have a seat on the larger NAC; it is represented by Carl Esposito, Honeywell vice president of marketing and product management.

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