As travelers prepare for a summer of holding patterns and flight delays, what would they think of the scenario, 20 years from now, if nothing is done to modernize air traffic management (ATM)? The map of the United States turns scarlet--the sign of en-route operations at 125 to 200 percent of capacity--and dark splotches like black holes depict areas at double capacity. The NASA graphic assumes a doubling of today's traffic levels.
That's not going to happen. A rolling, 10-year plan is in place to gradually increase U.S. airspace capacity. Congress also has chartered the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) to plan and execute a long-term strategy. Charles Keegan, the director of JPDO, serves as vice president of operations planning in the Air Traffic Organization, positioning him to create an end-to-end blueprint.
But JPDO has to integrate the ideas and technologies of five government entities, while balancing the views of operators, manufacturers and controllers. The budget requested for FY06 is only $28 million--$18 million from FAA and $10 million from NASA.
JPDO lacks budgetary authority over its participating agencies. Its level of programmatic authority is still under review. Surely a chunk of its $28 million will go to keep the office running?
Industry observers claim that there is at least $300 million in the federal budget related to air transportation system modernization. But JPDO's attempts to implement the next-generation air traffic system (NGATS) will occur at a time of declining trust fund balances, budget cuts and shrinking capital investment dollars.
JPDO's structure is also an issue. It's an interdepartmental "coordination activity." FAA leads four of the eight JPDO teams while NASA, the Pentagon, Homeland Security and Commerce lead others.
Another question is industry participation. Two avenues are the NGATS Institute, a sort of government-industry clearinghouse, and RTCA. As this issue went to press, the director of the Institute had not been named. Manufacturers want it to get organized, so that serious R&D can begin.
The second avenue is RTCA. At FAA's request, RTCA has created an industry-led ATM advisory committee, the ATMAC, to advise and support FAA on investment priorities. Honeywell suggests that RTCA--a consensus-based, industry-led FAA advisory committee--input directly to JPDO, as well as FAA.
That is starting to happen. In a recent letter, Keegan requested that RTCA "serve as a primary means for obtaining community views regarding FAA's near-term investment priorities and build a bridge between RTCA, JPDO and the NGATS Institute." RTCA also would "serve as the primary forum for formal review and comment on work products, proposals, etc. of the [JPDO]." RTCA would identify "linchpins" common to FAA, European Commission, JPDO and International Air Transport Association (IATA) roadmaps occurring in the next 10 years and recommend actions.
But the letter says nothing about formalizing an RTCA role to help develop JPDO work products and proposals. Although RTCA is viewed as focusing on the near- and mid-term, it has published a concept of operations document with a long-term component and could work on strategic things.
Operators, meanwhile, are "neutral" to the planning process, says a U.S. airline executive. "The JPDO world is beyond business case analysis at the moment," he says. "There's not a great deal of definition around the Institute or how JPDO will integrate into the operating plans of the government." But "2025 is pretty close."
And what if Europe and the U.S. don't agree? IATA and others cite the risk of expensive, "fragmented" avionics, if global harmonization is not fulfilled. The most visible missing piece in the JPDO structure is the lack of clear input from the user community, says Ralph Thompson, IATA's director of infrastructure strategy. He holds up the model of Europe's SESAME air traffic modernization program as an example in which all stakeholders are involved. Under SESAME, the government essentially pays an inclusive industry consortium to develop a modernization plan.