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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Editor’s Note

Bill Carey

It’s auspicious for NextGen that new FAA Administrator J. Randolph "Randy" Babbitt chose to make his first public speech outside of Congress at the RTCA Symposium in June. Babbitt is not a newcomer to the NextGen effort — prior to being nominated as administrator, he was due to chair RTCA’s NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force. But as important as NextGen is to the future fortunes of aviation, there were more pressing issues on Babbitt’s plate, starting with FAA’s response to the Feb. 12 crash of a Colgan Air Q400.

Following his keynote speech to the symposium June 10 in Chantilly, Va., Babbitt was back in the halls of Congress testifying before a Senate subcommittee on FAA’s oversight of regional carriers. And within "striking distance" at the time, he told the symposium, was a resolution of the nearly three-year-old contract dispute with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, FAA’s largest union. The parties were involved in a mediation process led by former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey.

Nevertheless, noting RTCA’s role in developing consensus recommendations that eventually become FAA regulations and policy, Babbitt said the symposium was "absolutely the right place for me to get started." And he added his voice as administrator to a growing chorus advancing the satellite-based, data-centric, network-enabled vision that is NextGen.

"Right now we are on the edge, we are on the biggest step as to how we navigate, how we keep airplanes apart, how we space them, that the aviation world has ever known," Babbitt declared. "This is going to be an enormous step. We are leaving behind an entire band of technology and stepping onto a new frontier. We have to acknowledge that NextGen is going to change the way we do business."

What’s important in the near term, Babbitt said, is for FAA to demonstrate some successes, giving aircraft operators the confidence to train for, equip to and adopt the procedures envisioned for NextGen — in short, to spend a lot of time and money on the grand vision. Congress also is keenly interested in demonstrable progress, having committed $700 million this year and $865 million next year to NextGen programs.

While there is broad consensus that the benefits of NextGen overall justify the cost, "The numbers have to make a business case on every level of the program," said another symposium speaker, Kristen Burnham, FAA director of investment planning and analysis. "If there were still questions about the aggregrate business case," she added, "we would not be here."

On its current scorecard, FAA can point to the start of ADS-B surveillance in the Gulf of Mexico by December and the deployment of 340 ADS-B ground stations, some 40 percent of the nationwide infrastructure, by 2010. The agency continues to work with cargo carrier UPS in Louisville, Ken., to demonstrate ADS-B, merging and spacing and RNAV standard terminal arrivals with optimized profile descents. Last month, FAA published an RNP approach into Chicago Midway Airport that facilitates departures from Chicago O’Hare.

"This is all about confidence and credibility, because the last thing that anybody wants to do in this system as we go forward is to make a big investment in equipment that never gets plugged in," Babbitt said.

"...Our Congress and our stakeholders are looking for a tangible return. They have both made significant investments in NextGen to date, and I intend to help see that they get it."

Should aircraft owners and operators take the plunge on NextGen based on the message emanating from FAA? In a question and answer session following the speech, Babbitt offered his own take on "early adopters" and the benefits they might expect.

"I’ve been on record for some time, long before I ever gave this job consideration, that the early adopters ought to have the advantages," Babbitt said. "There’s a school of thought that says we have to be fair to everybody in the system, but the other side of that says if you’ve gone to the time and expense to buy the equipment, define the procedures, develop the procedures, train your employees in those procedures, you ought to be able to use those things.

"I don’t see it as any different from a high-occupancy vehicle lane," he added. "You drive the right kind of car, you get to use it."

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