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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Editor's Note: NextGen Matters

Emily Feliz

FAA in late June released its much anticipated, but delayed, NextGen Implementation Report, providing a roadmap for implementation and putting dollar amounts and other metrics on how much NextGen will improve our National Airspace System (NAS).

Among the notable numbers in the report:

➤ By the end of the NextGen mid-term in 2020, NextGen infrastructure improvements will reduce delays by 41 percent compared with what would happen if further improvements were not made.

➤ The agency estimates 16 million metric tons of cumulative reductions of carbon dioxide emissions through 2020. For the same period, FAA predicts 1.6 billion gallons in cumulative reductions of fuel use.

➤ These efficiency improvements will provide an estimated $38 billion in cumulative benefits to aircraft operators, the traveling public and FAA. This increase from last year’s estimated $24 billion is primarily the result of the Department of Transportation’s decision to increase the dollar value of passenger time savings, the first time it has done so in a decade.

“Many years from now when we reflect back on our move to NextGen, we will take pride in being a part of the largest aviation infrastructure project in history. We will look at 2012 as a pivotal year during which we delivered actual benefits to the flying public,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wrote in a letter to readers of the Implementation Plan.

Impressive numbers, all, to be sure. However, what’s striking to me about the report, sneakily released during the Paris Airshow when most of the world’s aviation industry press was focused elsewhere, is that one of the first sections of the report was called “Why NextGen Matters.” Really? Just a few years from 2020 deployment and we’re still talking about why this multi-billion project matters? This was followed by a panel discussion at an aviation industry event in Washington entitled, “What is NextGen?”

Maybe I’ve completely lost my perspective; I live and breathe a fair amount of NextGen on a daily basis. And make no mistake NextGen faces a fair amount of hurdles in the coming years, not the least of which is sequestration, regulatory challenges, financial concerns and schedule delays. But if the aviation stakeholders in the United States are still having discussions about what NextGen is and why it matters this far into the process, maybe NextGen is more doomed than I thought. Because the fact of the matter is that NextGen does matter, it matters greatly to all of us involved in this industry, and it matters to the traveling public, whether they know it or not.

True, much of the general public could use an education about what this airspace modernization program is and why we need it, if nothing else to ease frustrations about airport delays and increasing costs. But this report and this event were for the aviation industry, stakeholders who should be well informed about the program and what its benefits are. Additionally, much of the audience for these should be people actively engaging in NextGen implementation developing and certifying the enabling onboard components, working with regulators to secure appropriate approvals and authorizations, working within industry groups to identify and set standards, and so on.

The report does lay out some NextGen successes over the last 12 months, most notably the progress made in construction of the ADS-B ground infrastructure and the continued deployment of satellite-based precision arrival and departure procedures. Going forward, the agency said it will focus on new ADS-B-enabled procedures and improved weather detection and forecast capabilities.

NextGen plays a central role in ensuring continued safe operation of the NAS. We need it urgently, not only to keep planes flying safely and efficiently, but to maintain our country’s status in the global economy. We’re reaching “crunch time” as the first implementation deadlines near. The NextGen buzz words of “collaboration” and “cooperation” are appropriate; we just need to figure out what we’re deciding and collaborating on.

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