There’s broad agreement that the National Airspace System (NAS) has served us well but can no longer meet current performance demands. Furthermore, there’s an appropriate and growing sense of urgency. We need to implement operational improvements now.
The fundamental concepts for the new NAS, aka NextGen, are well known and widely supported in the United States and internationally. NextGen provides a strategic target toward which to proceed. But the community needs to improve operational capabilities now, in the short- to mid-term. Many of us are calling that objective NowGen.
Enabling technologies, such as satellite navigation, ADS-B, data communication and information technologies, are now available. Ongoing research and development will continue to foster improved capabilities. Maturing new technologies, such as enhanced and synthetic vision, will soon be available to support further enhancements. RTCA committees have produced recommended Minimum Operational Performance Standards and guidance documents in most areas and efforts are underway to update existing standards and to develop new recommended standards for the emerging technologies.
These are all good developments, but they are not enough. Implementing change requires more than well-defined concepts, available technology and recommended standards. As many have said, when it comes to change, "the devil is in the details."
To successfully implement operational improvements, government regulators and ATC operators, aircraft operators and equipment suppliers need to make many "detail" decisions. Collaboratively making the right decisions in a timely manner is critical. Anything less will result in lost opportunities, reduced operational performance, increased costs and delay. We need an integrated systems approach for identifying and addressing implementation details. Here are two key areas where "details" must be resolved:
Where and how will various communications, navigation and surveillance functions be performed — in the aircraft or as part of the infrastructure? FAA is clear about its intention to pursue an aircraft-centric, performance-based approach to modernization. That critical decision is very helpful, but it also underscores the need for Required Total System Performance decisions. Which specific tasks will be allocated to the communications, navigation and surveillance functions, and how will those functions be implemented? These decisions are interdependent, will impact avionics and infrastructure equipment designs, costs and schedules and must support current operational improvements while moving toward NextGen.
Beyond the technology and "box" considerations, there are issues associated with regulatory policies, certification and operating approvals, operating procedures, training and facilities. Decisions in these areas could also impact government and industry investments and schedules.
This truncated set of "details" quickly brings the community to the fundamental questions: "who pays" for what and when and, perhaps more important, when will operational benefits begin to flow? The community needs operational benefits now, not in five, 10 or more years. Uncertainty accompanies delay. The community needs an executable plan to guide us from NowGen to NextGen. It would be great if we could immediately assemble a stable plan upon which everyone could agree. Then the community could focus all of its resources on implementing the plan. But that won’t happen. There are too many issues, too many players, too many options. Furthermore, the environment — issues, budgets, technology — is constantly changing.
Clearly there’s no single, simple solution. But in working together, government and industry can make progress in meeting urgent, current operational needs while building to a less than perfectly defined future NAS. Government and industry leaders must meet regularly and engage in meaningful dialogue about issues and solutions. Although they cannot perform the needed system integrator function, government/industry leaders can play a major collaborative role in making the right decisions in a timely manner.
The RTCA Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee (ATMAC) is well postured to perform this critical collaborative function. Of note, the Air Transport Association recently underscored the efficacy of the ATMAC by recommending to FAA that the ATMAC serve as the venue for keeping the aviation community informed about New York-area operational improvements and, where appropriate, to assist with implementation.
We can best serve the public and our community by assuring ATMAC is used in this collaborative, advisory capacity. Change is absolutely critical. Waiting is not an option.