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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Metrics, Industry Collaboration Key to NextGen Ramp Up

Juliet Van Wagenen

Ayer and Bolton
Bill Ayer, former chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group and FAA’s Assistant Administrator for NextGen Edward Bolton Jr. at the Aviation 2015 conference. Photo: Aviation 2015

[Avionics Today 06-24-2015] Bill Ayer, former chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group and FAA’s Assistant Administrator for NextGen Edward Bolton Jr., touted the importance of industry engagement and metrics in moving forward with the NextGen program during the AIAA Aviation 2015 conference yesterday. Speaking to a crowd of industry representatives and students during the “NextGen: A Model of Stakeholder Engagement” session at the conference in Dallas, Texas, Ayer and Bolton  emphasized the cooperation that has moved the airspace modernization forward both culturally and technically.

“One of the biggest things [in making NextGen successful] is the stakeholder collaboration working together,” said Ayer, who touched on the efforts of the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), a four-year-old committee of aviation industry stakeholders committed to advising the FAA on a path forward for certain airspace initiatives.

Through the help of the NAC, which includes stakeholders from airlines, organizations and other stakeholders in the aviation industry, Ayer believes the FAA was able to focus the gargantuan program and prioritize today’s four main focus areas: Performance-Based Navigation (PBN), surface operations, closely spaced parallel runways and Data Comm

“We went from an FAA plan that had 36 things in it and progress went so slow it was hard to see … We took that, whittled it down, we went through a prioritization exercise and the criteria that came out of it were measurable benefits, monetizable benefits out of the initiative for the operators and operational readiness,” according to Ayer, this left the FAA with a plan to tackle areas with “near term monetizable benefit with existing equipage.”

The key to tackling these and other upcoming initiatives, Ayer says, is to find measurable benefits within existing aircraft equipage. And when it comes to measuring these benefits, metrics are key. While the FAA has reported on projected savings in fuel through the use of PBN, and improved aircraft throughput at busy airports through its Metroplex initiative, the industry still needs widely available, easy to understand metrics that lead to actionable benefits as operators continue to invest in equipping their aircraft with NextGen avionics. This was a sentiment also discussed by Bolton and other members of the NAC during the recent RTCA 2015 conference.

“What gets measured gets managed. You have to get metrics and the metrics have to represent what the operators want. It’s got to be that measurable benefit stuff, not just program goals, but actual deliverables that matter to the operators,” said Ayers. “In any kind of a plan, in any kind of execution of an initiative you want to have names, dates and metrics. And then the reporting at any point in time relative to where you are is measured by those metrics.”

As data allows for a way to measure progress for NextGen initiatives, which Bolton touts as ahead of schedule with 19 milestones completed from the plan laid out in October of last year that required the FAA to hit only 17 milestones to stay on track, both men admit that there are still issues with the program.

“We’ve made a lot of progress but there’s a lot of frustration, which is understandable because it should be moving faster,” said Ayer. “Moving forward on NextGen is really important for lots of reasons, the U.S. is operating the safest, most efficient airspace in the [world], the most complex airspace. Doing NextGen faster is important for the environment, it’s important for the economy, it’s important for keeping America as the global leader in aviation.”

And while the technology to move forward with maximizing airspace capacity is already in place, Ayer and Bolton admitted during the discussion that they see cultural problems standing in the way of rapid progress.

“The challenges of NextGen are not technological, they’re cultural,” Bolton said. “There has been a great deal of infrastructure and satellite-based navigation technology that’s already on the aircraft. It’s really about aligning the technology with the policies, procedures and safety so you can really do implementation. It’s a real challenge.”

Optimized Profile Descent (OPD) is one area where Bolton sees airlines gaining benefits, citing American Airlines who he says reported savings of an estimated $1 million a month due to the smoother approaches. However, with policies, training and route redesigns, among other issues standing the way, progress for other airports is stalled until agencies and industry can put those things in place.

“It’s the work around the technology that gives you implementation, that is the challenge that we’re mostly focused on now. There’s a lot of unrealized capability that’s on the floor that we’re trying to harvest and put them in the hands of the American folks,” said Bolton, noting that overcoming these challenges could add more inertia to NextGen progress. “If we do a great job on that, that greats an environment where we can get the support and the funding that we need to do the next iteration of NextGen.”

When these metroplex redesigns happen to put these kinds of technologies and procedures in place that will help alleviate the capacity challenges the U.S. will see in coming years, Ayers again emphasizes industry cooperation to help smooth implementation.

“It is incumbent on the airlines to participate in these process changes, these airspace changes. If there’s a redesign going on in the metroplex, all of the carriers that operate there and have a significant presence really need to be involved from that first meeting,” said Ayers. “Everyone needs to show up. They need to dedicate people and expertise to this to get the result that they want.”

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