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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mid-Term Middle Ground

RTCA’s NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force delivers its operational recommendations to the FAA

Bill Carey

The RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force, formed this year to develop consensus recommendations to expedite the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), has produced a list of suggested operational capabilities in five identified "domains" of surface operations, runway access, metroplex operations, cruise and general aviation access to the national airspace system.

The government-industry group known as Task Force 5 also has identified two capability areas — integrated air-traffic management (I-ATM) and data communications — that are considered cross cutting of the domains. Finally, it has asked FAA to consider "over-arching" recommendations deemed critical to successful implementation of NextGen operational capabilities, including financial incentives for equipage such as low-interest loans, subsidies and other mechanisms.

Not publicly released at this writing, the final report of the Task Force resulted from seven months of intensive meetings involving industry and FAA representatives in locations including Washington, D.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Atlanta. Its genesis was a request to RTCA in mid-January from Henry P. "Hank" Krakowski, chief operating officer of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, and Margaret Gilligan, FAA associate administrator for Aviation Safety. FAA executives asked RTCA, which serves as a federal advisory body, to create a task force to produce consensus recommendations on achieving "mid-term" NextGen operational capabilities — improvements on the ground and in the air that can be implemented between now and 2018.

The original chairman of the Task Force was J. Randolph "Randy" Babbitt, prior to his appointment this spring as FAA’s 16th administrator. Babbitt was succeeded in the chairman’s role by Capt. Stephen M. Dickson, senior vice president for Flight Operations with Delta Air Lines. Some 300 people from across the aviation industry signed up to assist in the consensus-building process, although not all actively participated.

The recommendations come with "a vast amount of supporting data and rationale, making this process transparent and objective," Dickson told the final plenary meeting of the Task Force, held Aug. 20 at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "That data is complemented by a rigorous financial analysis as well as the real-world operational perspective of the user community."

Over the course of its deliberations, the Task Force showed a preference for using currently available technology and equipment with a quicker return on investment to achieve NextGen mid-term capabilities. In the final report, it divides recommended operational capabilities into three tiers, with the first tier representing capabilities assessed as having higher benefits with relatively low risk. All Tier 1 capabilities are recommended for implementation.

In the domain of surface operations, for example, recommended operational capabilities for implementation between 2010 and 2014 include surface situational awareness; developing a Traffic Flow Management (TFM) common operational picture for collaborative decision-making; and implementing surface connectivity among airline flight operations centers, FAA and airports. A feature of the Task Force recommendations is that they come attached with the names of operators committed to implementation, in this case Delta, Continental, FedEx, UPS, US Airways and United airlines.

"The Task Force did not attempt to re-write [FAA’s] NextGen Implementation Plan and assumed that baseline programs and technologies would continue to be developed by the FAA during the transition," states an executive summary of the final report provided to Avionics. "The Task Force did look for opportunities to accelerate the transition where existing technologies could provide a ‘bridge’ to NextGen programs that are still in development.... Members first considered candidate operational capabilities that take advantage of existing equipage that could evolve to capabilities using more sophisticated technologies over time."

According to the executive summary, the Task Force recommends the following operational capabilities:

  • Surface: Deploy ground infrastructure to capture and integrate surface activities; Provide TFM common operational picture; Implement surface connectivity and situational awareness among airline flight operations centers, FAA and airports. "These actions should be undertaken under the auspices of one consolidated point of responsibility, authority and accountability within the FAA."

  • Runway Access: Increase capacity and throughput to converging and intersecting runways; Improve parallel runway operations.

  • Metroplex: Relieve congestion and tarmac delays at major metropolitan airports and surrounding airspace by instituting "tiger teams" focused on quality of implementation at each location and deconflicting of adjacent airports. Core capabilities to leverage are Area Navigation/Required Navigation Performance (RNAV/RNP); optimized vertical profiles using vertical navigation; use of 3 nm and terminal separation rules in more airspace; an integrated approach to airspace design and classification; and ATC, flow and surface traffic management tools.

  • Cruise: Improve efficiency of cruise operations by increasing the ability to disseminate real-time airspace status and schedules; improving flow management to better utilize time-based metering and flight operator capabilities; implementing data communications between ATC systems and aircraft to more effectively manage traffic and exchange routing and clearance information. Also recommended is development of an Area Navigation-based enroute system.

  • Access: Extend radar-like services to low-altitude airspace without radar surveillance; Implement Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance (LPV) procedures for airports without precision approaches.

The cross-cutting recommendations call for digital data communications for revised departure clearances, weather reroutes and routine communications; and an I-ATM solution with improved, collaborative ATM automation to negotiate user-preferred routes and alternative trajectories.

Among overarching recommendations is "incentivizing equipage" — providing financial incentives such as low-interest loans, equipment subsidies or other mechanisms such as user fees, fuel/excise taxes or income tax credits to invest in NextGen capabilities. This also calls for "establishing a National Airspace System where system users who have aircraft with higher performance/capability levels get higher levels of service" the concept FAA refers to as best-equipped, best-served.

Operator Consensus?

While the Task Force report resulted from industry consensus, it does not represent unanimity of industry stakeholders. Among those who are critical of the report is Robert Hilb, a consultant and former UPS technical pilot. Hilb at times has represented avionics manufacturer ACSS and RTCA’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Work Group. In an early September interview, he emphasized that he was offering his own opinion of the recommendations without the benefit of seeing the final report, which was delayed by more than a week so that comments could be incorporated and approved.

In some of the Task Force meetings, "there were airlines basically saying ‘we really don’t have any money to spend on anything and therefore, we really want to try to maximize the current equipage we have on the aircraft,’ which is totally understandable," Hilb said. "But I think at some point in time, we have to plan on how to get [to NextGen]. New aircraft are coming off the line and... you don’t want people to continue to invest in things that won’t be good past 2015 or 2018 if there are alternatives — or at least people need to know what the alternatives are."

Hilb used the example of FANS-1 datalink communications, used mainly for oceanic airspace.

"There’s a lot of use of FANS-1, an enroute system only, and it really doesn’t have some of the capability it will need in the future," he said. "... In my opinion, most of the stuff that was recommended, one or more carriers already have some of that on their aircraft and there really was no endorsement of anything longer-term that would cost the airlines money to put on board the aircraft. ADS-B is in that category."

While he believes the Task Force process ultimately was worthwhile, Hilb said, "The way I read the Terms of Reference, this was supposed to be an industry consensus and I think that it ended up being more of an operator consensus."

In his remarks to the Aug. 20 plenary, Dickson alluded to disagreement within the aviation community over the Task Force’s emphasis on leveraging present equipment over newer technologies such as ADS-B.

"Some may ask why this report does not specifically address some of the higher-profile equipage programs and initiatives identified in the NextGen Implementation Plan," he said. "... Much of the answer lies in the fact that there is not consensus within the user community regarding the user benefits for some technologies within the mid-term time frame, even though some users in specific locations have made an investment and are receiving benefits."

Graphic courtesy RTCA NextGen Task Force

Aircraft operators indicated the priority operational areas they felt the RTCA NextGen Task Force should address in a survey.

Dickson continued: "This report provides the best pathway to incentivize foundational NextGen equipage, such as ADS-B, by taking advantage of existing technologies and equipment that are capable of generating real user benefits in the ‘NowGen.’ User benefits generated by implementing the first transition steps of NextGen... will expedite all stakeholders’ plans and elevate confidence to invest in even more beneficial equipage and technologies."

There were 598 comments to the Task Force’s Aug. 20 draft final report, printed in small type across 40 pages. They ranged from simple word changes to substantive concerns that attest to the difficulty of achieving aviation-wide consensus.

For example, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which claims to represent two-thirds of all pilots in the United States, said a section dealing with the Task Force’s business case subgroup "needs to include sentence [that] specifically excludes small, piston-engine general aviation aircraft from the results. This segment of the community was not evaluated. All the business case subgroup discussion suggests that all operators participated, but in fact it was an air-transport only exercise.

"Because of the large diversity of GA operators and missions, it’s impossible to capture a single business case for this community in the sense that an air carrier does a business case," the AOPA comment continues. "The GA cost picture is different because we are not opening up (flight management systems) to add capabilities, but we are retrofitting a much larger legacy fleet."

Avionics OEM Honeywell described as "very misleading" a "Technology Portfolio Payback" matrix in the draft report depicting data communications as less costly and with a shorter payback period than RNAV/RNP, ADS-B Out and Ground-Based Augmentation System.

"At this point, Data Comm is the least well understood technology and therefore should have the most uncertainty associated with cost and benefit," the company said. "Also, with what we know today about the need for upgraded radios and communications systems, the cost for Data Comm is most likely going to be as high or higher than any of the other technologies listed."

Podcast:

Rockwell Collins Looks Forward To NextGen

Kelly Ortberg, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Commercial Systems, Rockwell Collins

To listen to the podcast, visit www.nowgennext.com

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