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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The NGIP Explained

The latest iteration of FAA’s NextGen Implementation Plan outlines capabilities envisioned for ‘mid-term’ realization

By Frank Alexander

The 2010 NextGen Implementation Plan (NGIP) was issued by FAA in March to help inform the public of the agency’s plan to implement the NextGen concept over the next nine years (2009-2018). It identifies FAA’s accomplishments over the past year as well as the goals it has set for technology and program deployment and the commitments made to support those goals.

According to its latest estimate, FAA predicts traffic growth will increase 19 percent over the next eight years. Implementing NextGen will reduce delays by 21 percent and provide a combined economic benefit of $22 billion to the traveling public, aircraft operators and FAA.

FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt, in an introduction to the NGIP, calls for operators “to be ready to equip their cockpits with the certified avionics necessary to realize the associated benefits.” Despite tough economic circumstances, he wrote, “we have seen more operators make commitments to their part of the NextGen framework” as FAA and its partners endeavor to merge developing technologies, policies and procedures into operational capabilities.

Implementation of NextGen, FAA argues, is a shared activity that will require commitment and investment from both the public and private sectors.

The NGIP is organized in five sections and two appendices. Section 1 describes NextGen as it exists today, identifying current capabilities. Section 2 restates FAA’s response to the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force. Section 3 characterizes how FAA proposes to develop and implement NextGen in the 2009-2018 (midterm) timeframe. Section 4 describes the benefits envisaged by FAA based on NextGen technology and Section 5 discusses the challenges it faces in implementing NextGen in the midterm.

NextGen Today

During 2009, FAA and industry partners conducted trials that demonstrated the benefit potential of NextGen capabilities. Some of these included tailored arrivals that use datalink to uplink a unique Area Navigation (RNAV) lateral and vertical path for aircraft to fly when coming off oceanic tracks to coastal gateway cities. These trials demonstrated the fuel savings potential of generating an optimum lateral and vertical path and the use of data link as an efficient means of transmitting that information to the aircraft. These procedures used the existing FANS-1/A data link capability of several long-range aircraft.

Another successful trial was conducted using surface surveillance techniques combined with information-sharing technology to demonstrate the potential benefit of combining these technologies in optimizing surface traffic movement, thus avoiding congestion on the airport surface. Trials conducted at Memphis, Tenn., and New York showed measurable reductions in taxi times as well as corresponding reductions in fuel and emissions.

Continued implementation of Localizer performance with vertical guidance (LPV) approaches is providing the general aviation segment with greater availability of precision approach procedures with a corresponding safety benefit. The general aviation community continues to increase its transition from basic GPS navigation to systems using the Wide Area Augmentation System and FAA is planning to continue adding LPV approaches to support general aviation.

At this writing, there were 567 RNAV en route and terminal procedures in use across the United States and some 500 Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches. The transition from conventional procedures is accelerating as FAA increases the number of RNAV en route, terminal and RNP approach procedures.

An important event for NextGen in 2009 was the implementation of an ADS-B-based surveillance infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico that was declared operational in December. This service will provide significant safety and operational improvements for the large number of helicopter operations in the Gulf. It is now possible for air-traffic controllers to more accurately track those aircraft as they operate to and from offshore oil rigs.

In Section 2 of the NGIP, FAA provides its response to the recommendations of the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force, released in September 2009 ( Avionics, April 2010, page 24). FAA has accepted all of the task force’s Tier 1 recommendations, which are incorporated in the NGIP. It should be noted that some of the recommendations will require additional analysis and investment prior to their implementation, but the goal of implementation is still within the mid-term time frame of 2015 to 2018.

NextGen is not just about operational change. The industry has to confront environmental issues, projected increases in traffic, new types of aircraft, including unmanned aircraft systems and very light jets, and the introduction of commercial space flights. The need to create a system that will support these changes is essential. To address environmental issues, FAA has been supporting a program called CLEEN, for Continuous Lower Emissions, Energy and Noise, that is encouraging research in the areas of more efficient engines and airfoils as well as sustainable alternative fuels. Some of these technologies are expected to begin to appear in the mid-term time frame.

Operationally, NGIP Section 3 identifies key ground infrastructure and avionic elements that FAA believes will be needed in the midterm. The document breaks elements down into six main areas: Flight Planning, Departure (pushback, taxi and departure), Climb/Cruise, Descent/Approach, Arrival (landing and taxi) and Airfield Improvements. The primary ground infrastructure and avionic elements are discussed in each section. The Airfield Improvements section identifies new runways, runway extensions and airfield reconfigurations at selected major airports.

The ground infrastructure requirements vary by section and primarily include the addition of ADS-B ground stations, automation modernization systems, enhanced traffic flow management, satellite-based infrastructure, datalink network and System-Wide Information Management (SWIM). The basic avionic requirements for all of the sections are RNAV/RNP capability, datalink and ADS-B. Of interest is the fact that ADS-B appears in all of the sections, even though ADS-B is not expected to be mandated until 2020.

Of significant concern to FAA is the question of the level and rate of NextGen equipage; not only in the midterm but throughout its evolution. New aircraft should not pose a significant issue for the midterm, but it should be noted that retrofit/upgrade is a costly effort highly dependent on the operator, its goals and objectives and willingness to expend capital not related to passenger services. Some may choose to delay or not equip at all.

This poses a dilemma for FAA in having to provide different levels of service for some operators. A way to minimize this condition is to ensure that the benefits offered by NextGen meet the benefit projections identified in the NGIP and can be accrued over a relatively short time frame of 1.5 to two years.

As mentioned earlier, FAA has estimated that traffic growth between 2009 and 2018 will increase by 19 percent at the 35 largest airports in the United States. Based on this growth assumption, FAA estimates the benefits of NextGen during this period will reduce delays by 21 percent, cut CO2 emissions by 14 million tons and save 1.48 billion gallons of jet fuel. These estimates are based on the implementation of three core technologies: ADS-B, data communications and increased use of performance-based navigation. FAA also believes these estimates may be understated if the calculations include Network Enabled Weather distributed across a system-wide information management system, or SWIM.

One point made throughout the document is that one of the key benefits of NextGen is the added safety provided by new technologies and procedures. Two excellent examples of this are the increased safety offered by ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico and the Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system in use in Colorado. Both applications are already showing safety benefits in terms of being able to provide radar-like services where none were available previously.

FAA has placed increased emphasis on the use of Safety Management Systems in all aspects of its operations. The Aviation Safety Information and Analysis System (ASIAS) will help the agency and its industry partners monitor the effectiveness of NextGen enhancements to ensure that the operational capabilities provided are efficient, environmentally sound and inherently safe.

Operationally, ADS-B and WAM are providing benefits by allowing separation standards to be safely reduced, thereby increasing capacity and reducing the need to carry additional fuel to account for the added time required when separation standards are greater. Expanded use of RNAV procedures in the terminal and enroute phases of flight will further increase NextGen benefits by allowing the placement of flight tracks that are far more efficient than those based on flying over ground navigation aids.

Delta Air Lines has reported significant benefits as a result of applying RNAV routing to departure procedures in Atlanta and also trial arrival procedures that use the vertical navigation function of RNAV systems to create optimized descent profiles for arrivals. Similar benefits have been measured using optimum vertical descent procedures for arrivals into the Los Angeles area, not only reducing fuel but also decreasing the amount of emissions and noise. Enroute RNAV procedures are saving Alaska Airlines more than 217 miles flown per day on routes between cities in the Pacific Northwest and California. This has resulted in annual fuel burn reduction of 200,000 gallons.

NextGen surface operation trials have demonstrated between 1.3 and 4.3 minute reductions in taxi time. This has been accomplished through shared situational awareness between ramp towers manned by air carrier personnel and FAA tower controllers. Further benefits are expected to accrue as this capability is expanded between traffic management coordinators in ATC centers and Terminal Radar Control facilities.

Finally, RNP approach procedures will be used to de-conflict airspace constraints between airports in large metroplexes. Two of the best examples of this benefit would be the use of RNP approaches at Chicago Midway airport to de-conflict traffic with Chicago O’Hare and RNP approaches at Newark Liberty International to de-conflict airspace with New York LaGuardia.

The Challenges

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges facing FAA in implementing NextGen will be how to integrate the schedules of existing technology improvements to ensure that each system is brought on line to be mutually supportive in maximizing benefits. The current system of managing programs individually will not work in a closely integrated system environment. This also applies to the development of regulatory, policy and procedural changes.

The NGIP also recognizes that the level and rate of equipage among operators will have a significant impact in terms of providing benefits and most important, managing the mix of aircraft with varying degrees of equipage.

“As we make our respective investment decisions, the FAA and the private sector must consider the full context of capabilities and benefits, rather than focusing only on specific systems or deployments in isolation,” the plan states. “In the FAA’s case, that necessitates revisions to our acquisition management system so that NextGen can be deployed in an integrated way. Likewise, private sector stakeholders must use their own internal processes to commit to investing in NextGen capabilities.”

This once again highlights that the commitment to a NextGen environment is a shared responsibility.

Appendix B of the NGIP represents a summary of FAA’s key work plans in support of NextGen’s midterm. It is broken down into five tables: Transformational Programs, Airspace Enhancements and Procedures, Airfield Development, NextGen Portfolio and Overarching Commitments.

The six Transformational Programs represent FAA’s core commitments to the NextGen transition. They include deployment of the ADS-B infrastructure, SWIM, Data Communications, NextGen Network Enabled Weather, NAS Voice Switch and Collaborative Air Traffic Management Technologies (CATM). CATM was added this year and its final investment decision has been approved.

Seven NextGen solution sets represent portfolios of interrelated NextGen capabilities that, taken together, will render the FAA’s mid-term operational vision. Each solution set table is preceded by a detailed overview of that particular portfolio’s goals and objectives.

The implementation commitment tables provide deployment schedules for the transformational programs, airspace enhancements and procedures and airfield development. These commitments include existing and upcoming programs that provide a foundation for NextGen mid-term capabilities.

The system development table highlights projects that have broad applicability across the solution sets and to NextGen overall. Such projects include work in support of safety management systems, environment and energy management systems, as well as human factors research and testing and computer modeling aimed at validating operational concepts. The projects documented in the NextGen demonstration tables provide the proof-of-concept work and real-world validation necessary for the advancement of NextGen concepts and prototypes. In many cases, immediate benefits are provided to the stakeholders who partner with FAA to conduct these demonstrations, while the agency gains information critical to carrying out the work of the solution sets.

Finally, the overarching table details the management and policy actions being taken to meet the overarching recommendations of the RTCA NextGen Task Force. This includes Task Force recommendations such as consistently achieving 3- and 5-mile separations, incentivizing equipage and streamlining FAA processes.

It is clear this undertaking presents significant challenges to FAA in terms of implementing NextGen capabilities. But perhaps of greater significance is the transformation of FAA’s management processes from the current system to one that is highly integrated and requires coordination of all of the agency’s divisions to achieve the goal.

FAA recognizes this transformation requires close collaboration with NextGen stakeholders. Without their shared commitment, the NextGen vision is not likely to be achieved.

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