ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Editor’s Note: Stretching The Dollar

By Dave Jensen | February 1, 2005
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Just how far can a dollar be stretched? Two initiatives announced late last year may well provide the answer. Both are significant to civil aviation. And both initiatives will require a large amount of funding at a time when revenues are hard to come by, either from a highly indebted federal government or an aviation trust fund with shrinking revenues. The initiatives also come while FAA's Air Traffic Organization still struggles to rein in its costs.

First, FAA announced in December that it plans to hire and train 12,000 new air traffic controllers over a 10-year period, beginning in 2006. This action was triggered by the facts that about half of FAA's 15,000-person, air traffic control (ATC) workforce is expected to retire by 2012 and that demands on the national airspace system are bound to increase.

And second, the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) submitted to Congress its plan to transform the U.S. air transportation system by 2025. The blueprint is to satisfy a requirement of the Vision 100--Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, signed by President Bush in December 2003. The "Integrated National Plan for the Next Generation Air Transportation System" (NGATS) was delivered by the five government agencies comprising the JPDO: the departments of Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security, NASA and FAA. Like the decision to hire controllers, the NGATS plan was triggered by the need to relieve an overly stressed air transportation system.

The blueprint is comprehensive, with strategies to expand the airport infrastructure, establish effective security systems, devise alternative concepts in airspace and airport operations, enhance operator situational awareness, better manage safety, reduce the impact of weather, harmonize equipage and operations, and introduce new policies, procedures and technologies. Avionics play a significant role in the NGATS plan. With enhanced flightdeck technologies, flight crews will be able to automatically "prevent controlled flight into terrain, aircraft collision, and airspace violations," as well as allow autonomous operations and weather avoidance.

The scheme is quite sweeping, with new responsibilities and procedures for everyone involved in flight operations, from the flight crew and dispatchers to the flow managers and controllers. Its schedule calls for an avionics roadmap by 2007 and allocation of new roles and responsibilities several years later.

The JPDO has placed no price tag on its inclusive plan, but its execution won't be cheap. The president's budget for '05 calls for about $5 million each from NASA and FAA to fund "essential operations" and "basic actions in critical areas," according to the NGATS plan. And the reauthorization act empowers Congress to authorize as much as $50 million a year for JPDO activities through 2009.

This funding clearly is not meant to cover a large-scale modernization effort. The "real money" is expected to come from investments made by the federal agencies in the JPDO and by industry partners. The federal agencies control an estimated $5 billion for aeronautic research, says one industry expert. The weight of the Vision 100 mandate, which some consider to be the most significant legislation for aerospace modernization ever issued, is expected to draw out sufficient funding from the agencies. That plus the NGATS plan's sense of purpose are expected to lure private industry funding.

Still, adequate investment to cover the U.S. airspace system's complete restructuring won't come easily. For example, FAA's efforts to contribute to the NGATS and satisfy its ATC staffing needs will be interesting to watch, given the Bush administration's reluctance to allocate funds. Last year the White House wouldn't support an FAA budget larger than $14 billion, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Making matters worse is the aviation trust fund's shrinking revenues due largely to cheaper ticket prices.

Dollars will have to be stretched. However, the importance, not to mention the vital need, to see the JPDO blueprint succeed can't be overstated. And this should induce the appropriate stakeholders to make adequate investments.

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