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Friday, October 1, 2010

Editor's Note: Funding NextGen

Bill Carey

In its 2010-2029 Business Aircraft Forecast released in July at the Farnborough Airshow, Bombardier Aerospace noted the first “green shoots” of recovery, offering hope the beleaguered business aviation segment is again rising.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), headed by former FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey, also anticipates recovery, so much so that it is urging timely deployment of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) to improve airspace capacity and meet rising demand for air travel.

“Many of our national aviation system’s limitations so obvious just a few years ago have been masked by the economic slowdown,” AIA states in a report timed for release during National Aerospace Week, Sept. 12-18. “Despite flagging air travel in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and a global recession that persisted throughout 2009, long-range forecasts from a wide spectrum of sources indicate robust demand for air travel over the next two decades.” Remember the FAA projection we’ve cited more than once in these pages, of a future tripling in air traffic? It now appears to be on the table again.

AIA directly ties airspace modernization, in short NextGen, to the industry’s future economic success and environmental profile. Safely expanding airspace system capacity and addressing growing environmental concerns are the two most significant challenges facing the U.S. civil aviation industry today, states the report, “Civil Aviation Growth in the 21st Century: Meeting Capacity and Environmental Challenges.”

Each of the report’s eight recommendations are significant to aerospace manufacturers AIA’s core constituency and the majority would impact avionics OEMs and architects of performance-based navigation (PBN) routes and procedures specifically. I’ll summarize the first in order, to Design and Implement a “Cash for Carbon” Program to Fund Aircraft Equipage. A variation of this, dubbed a NextGen Equipage Bank, was discussed by RTCA Task Force 5, and the concept appears to be gaining traction.

In addition to its own substantial costs for infrastructure, FAA estimates airlines and other operators will need to spend $14 billion to $20 billion to make their aircraft NextGen-compatible by 2025. Avionics manufacturers and other industry players believe FAA’s equipage estimates are too high, AIA says, and that outfitting the entire civil aviation fleet of commercial and general aviation aircraft for ADS-B In/Out, a fundamental enabling technology, can be done for $12 billion.

“Whether the final price to equip is under $12 billion or over $20 billion,” the report states, “it is clearly a sizeable investment for an airline industry that continues to struggle to return to profitability and for a general aviation community that counts individual aircraft owner-operators who fly recreationally among its core constituency.”

AIA posits that user-funded support of the nation’s aviation infrastructure through taxes and fees paid into the Aviation Trust Fund may have to be rethought in the case of NextGen.

“[E]ven as NextGen effectively puts aviation infrastructure into the cockpit, the FAA and Congress have not acted on calls for spending federal dollars on aircraft equipage,” the association says. “ … For a variety of reasons, the issue of NextGen funding may require a more pragmatic approach, including a deviation from past assumptions about the appropriate mix between government and private sector funding for transportation infrastructure and the mechanisms for financing such investments.”

A Cash for Carbon program would be a contract between government and industry, with both parties held accountable to measurable commitments. In return for a pledge by operators to achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward (CNG 2020+) government grants or government-backed loans would be issued to fund ADS-B In/Out, RNP and RNAV equipment for the airline industry and some 22,000 “high-end” business jets and pressurized turboprops. An “excellent” source for the government funding, states the study, would be the Transportation Infrastructure Bank proposed by President Obama as part of a comprehensive, multimodal transportation plan announced in September.

The Obama plan proposes “a robust investment in our effort to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system (NextGen),” according to a White House fact sheet. “This investment will help both the FAA and airlines to install new technologies (and) other improvements.”

Bill Carey is the editor in chief of Avionics Magazine. He can be reached at 301-354-1820 or bcarey@accessintel.com

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