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Monday, June 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: Task Force Meets

Bill Carey

The RTCA task force assigned the unenviable task of recommending "mid-term" NextGen operational capabilities to FAA, as in those capabilities that can be achieved by 2018, wasn’t given a lot of rope to work with. Conceived in January and convened for the first time a month later, the task force is expected to deliver what could be industry-altering recommendations by August, along with a business case that both aircraft operators and FAA can swallow.

Having attended the latest plenary meeting of the NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force on May 12, I can safely say this is no dusty-shelf study group, but a motivated, engaged alliance of industry and government leaders committed to hitting its mark. There may be a sense of dread underlying its deliberations — participants have reached the "stark realization stage" of the enormity of the task, said one — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, dread and deadlines have made me the journalist I am today.

Capt. Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations with Delta Air Lines and chairman of the task force (see Perspectives, page 58), opened the plenary meeting in FAA’s third-floor auditorium with a "fireside chat" reassuring the audience that progress is being made.

"This is my first foray into the RTCA process, and if you don’t take a deep breath every now and then and think about what it takes to develop true consensus that the whole industry can get behind, it is very easy to get frustrated," Dickson said. "... Remember, it’s about consensus, and we will have a mechanism to assure that we don’t just give [FAA officials] a document that’s not actionable at the end of this."

As of the May plenary, the task force had compiled a list of more than 120 operational capabilities or "inputs," each one representing "an actionable process that will yield efficiency," said Stephen J. Vail, senior manager of Air Traffic Operations with FedEx Express and co-chairman of the task force Operational Capabilities work group. The inputs were derived from two categories: what can be done with present equipage that is not being done and what could be done if an operator chose to equip.

The inputs were organized into 28 natural groupings, such as collaborative Air Traffic Management, optimal profile descents and closely spaced parallel operations, explained Capt. David Strand of American Airlines, co-chairman of the task force Operations and Aircraft Elements subgroup. Strand’s committee was to define "elements" within each grouping, such as policy, training and certification requirements.

In parallel, a Business Case Parameters subgroup met for the first time the week of the plenary. With all due respect to operations, the development of a business case that clearly demonstrates a timely return on investment to airlines and other operators that equip or fly to NextGen standards may be the more critical contribution of the task force.

"When we started this task force, we made a number of commitments to the FAA on what we would deliver and how this would be different," said RTCA President Margaret Jenny, reporting on the business case meeting. "One of the things that we promised was that we would bring to the table the financial aspect of this. It’s pretty unprecedented for an RTCA process to have the involvement of executive level people who are making financial fleet decisions in the airlines. It’s equally unprecedented for these people to get together amongst themselves, with their colleagues and their competitors."

All will be for naught, however, if FAA cannot or will not embrace the task force recommendations. Vicki Cox, FAA senior vice president for NextGen Operations and Planning, offered some assurances, but also exhorted industry to step up.

"I have to put an emphasis on the partnering here," Cox said. "If this group recommends in August, for example, that the FAA implement RNP SAAAR procedures to deconflict runways where airports are closely spaced geographically, then it’s going to be incumbent on airlines with equipped aircraft to commit to train their crews and get certified and use those procedures. So it’s a partnership to make this a success."

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