ATM Modernization

Editor’s Note: U.S. Following Europe’s Lead?

By David Jensen | April 1, 2004
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Has Europe overtaken the United States in air traffic management (ATM) modernization? If it hasn’t, many believe it soon will.

At recent aviation-related events in the Washington, D.C., area, considerable consternation was voiced about President Bush’s proposed cuts of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) FY2005 budget for capital investment. Last month on this page, I listed some of the modernization projects that have been shelved or restricted by the cuts. This month, on our Perspectives page, Air Traffic Control Association president Paul Bollinger warns that the budget cuts, in tandem with a recovering air travel market, will "plague" the U.S. air traffic system with "inefficiencies, congestion, delays and operating constraints."

And the cuts will diminish the United States’ leadership role in ATM, too. That concern was mentioned more than once at RTCA’s recent symposium titled "Implementing a Performance Based National Airspace System." Spirited discussion at this Washington event largely focused on advancing the required navigation performance (RNP) and area navigation (RNAV) concepts. But there were comments of frustration, as well.

"The United States has lost its pacesetter status in CNS/ATM [communication, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management]," stated Ira Pearl, a symposium speaker and Delta Air Lines’ director of flight operations, technical support. "Many of us are to blame, including the airlines." Pearl cited "fragmented opinions" of new systems and the FAA’s "fits and starts" in implementing those systems as major inhibitors to steady progress in modernizing the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). "As a result, the Europeans have taken the lead in areas such as CPDLC [controller pilot data link communication]," he added.

About a week later and only several miles from the RTCA symposium, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) unveiled at its headquarters a "Five-Year Aerospace R&D Plan"-essentially, the issues the U.S. space and aviation industries want to see addressed during an election year. Again, deep concern was expressed-and not just because the United States is losing its competitive edge to Europe, but also because of emerging technological competition from India and China. (It is somewhat startling to note, for example, that India produces some four times more engineers a year than the United States, and six times more engineers graduate from colleges in the People’s Republic of China annually.)

"The aeronautics portion of NASA’s budget has been declining for years," warned AIA president and CEO John Douglass. "And in FAA’s current OEP [Operational Evolution Plan], little besides WAAS [wide area augmentation system] has progressed."

"Europe is much more focused and willing to mandate," Douglass added, explaining why Europe’s ATM modernization efforts are advancing at a faster clip than U.S. efforts. Indeed, Europe clearly does appear more resolute in its modernization plans. Note, for example, the recent formation of a consortium among ATM R&D organizations in Europe, to harmonize and promote their development work. Note, also the comprehensive Strategic Safety Action Plan (SSAP) that European ATM leaders established in response to the tragic midair collision over southern Germany in July 2002. Coordinated and monitored by Eurocontrol, SSAP is to join the components for ATM safety, including human resources, training equipment and procedures, and look systematically at safety regulation and safety management, said Eurocontrol’s director general, Victor Aguado. Many of SSAP’s goals are to be achieved over the next two years. The results will be greater air safety "in a region stretching from Ireland to Azerbaijan and from Italy to Iceland, according to a Eurocontrol release.

Back in Washington, Douglass and Clayton Jones, president and CEO of Rockwell Collins and chair of the AIA board of governors, have recommended that the U.S. government increase the FAA’s R&D funding by $3.8 billion and NASA’s aeronautical (non-space) funding by $1.7 billion through 2008.

The United States has long been a pacesetter in air traffic management. It’s difficult to envision the country not continuing in that role. But if the Federal Aviation Administration’s "fits and starts" continue and its funding fails to allow sufficient technological growth, many officials in the U.S. aerospace community obviously believe it very well could happen.

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