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Monday, June 1, 2009

Perspectives: Acheiving NextGen

Steve Dickson

In mid-January, Hank Krakowski and Peggy Gilligan of the FAA asked RTCA to undertake a new task force initiative to serve as the catalyst for the collaboration essential to transforming the promise of NextGen into reality. They recognized the imperative that the aircraft operational community must be more involved in shaping NextGen solutions — in particular the transition.

Consequently, the primary deliverable of the task force is a prioritized list of operational capabilities that can be implemented by government and industry and delivering intended benefits by 2018. At its meeting on Jan. 23, the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee (ATMAC) concurred with the notion that government-industry collaboration must be strengthened to implement the transition to NextGen. The ATMAC also agreed to provide the necessary resources and executive guidance to advance the work of the NextGen Task Force (TF).

I am happy to report that the task force has been enthusiastically embraced and supported by the industry. In fact, the level of interest has been unprecedented. While the commitment to the effort has been strong, it has been a challenge to get this big ship underway due to the size of the volunteer pool.

Fortunately, due to the strong leadership of our industry working group co-chairs, Steve Vail (FedEx) and Dave Ford (Lockheed Martin), along with the support of their FAA counterparts (Ann Tedford and John Hennigan), the TF has built strong momentum, and I am confident that it will be able to forge a consensus and deliver concrete recommendations to the FAA by the August 2009 deadline.

By its nature, the TF needs to focus first on full implementation of operational capabilities that use existing technologies. To do otherwise ignores two realities. First, operators will never equip with new technology if they have not been able to achieve the benefits that were promised by existing technologies. This will require the FAA to work with industry to streamline the operational approval process and review outdated criteria. Second, we need to realize that the transition to NextGen will never end — not even in 2025. A building-block approach to the transition provides the surest path to our destination.

Leveraging existing capabilities not only allows us to reap immediate benefits, but also provides the foundation upon which we will be able to build NextGen capabilities.

In some respects, even the use of the term "NextGen" is misleading because it implies that we should focus on planning for something out in the future, rather than aggressively seeking opportunities to implement improvements to the current system. An 80-percent solution that we can achieve within the next few years is far superior to investing in technology with an uncertain benefit stream, particularly when we cannot clearly demonstrate the benefits of the investments we have already made.

At the core, these are the pressing operations and process issues that must be addressed before we can even consider developing a business case for future equipage.

The good news is if we can get the basic blocking and tackling right and begin to see anticipated benefits from existing equipage, the foundation for NextGen systems, technologies and the associated business cases becomes much stronger. If we choose to emphasize technologies and tools, we will shift the focus away from implementing the operational capabilities we need now, provide an excuse for not addressing pressing performance issues in the National Airspace System as it exists today, and reinforce bureaucratic divisions and inertia.

The ultimate success of NextGen probably depends to a greater degree on the operational capabilities we can derive from existing equipage through revised criteria, policies and procedures within the operating side of the FAA than it does on the work the Joint Planning and Development Office has done to develop programs and technologies to support the 2025 vision.

Having said this, the aviation community does have the responsibility to align its "NowGen" priorities with the NextGen plan. I submit that the approach of the TF along with the initial focus on near-term operational capabilities is the right approach to do just that.

Capt. Steve Dickson is senior vice president, Flight Operations, with Delta Air Lines and serves as chairman of the NextGen Task Force. A longer version of this article first appeared in the RTCA Digest, and is reprinted here with permission.

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