Commercial, Military

Q&A: Forging Consensus On Future Airspace

By Jonathan Ray | September 1, 2009
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Margaret T. Jenny last month completed her first year as president of RTCA, Inc., a private, not-for-profit corporation that develops consensus-based recommendations for aviation communications, navigation, surveillance and air-traffic management. She succeeded David S. Watrous, a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general who is credited with growing the organization and enhancing its profile as a respected voice of the aviation community during his 19 years at RTCA, 17 as president.

Jenny arrived at RTCA after heading aviation consulting firm MJF Strategies, LLC, with partner John Fearnsides, formerly director of the MITRE Corporation Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD). Prior to forming MJF Strategies in 2001, Jenny served as vice president of corporate business development at ARINC; director of Airline Business and Operations Analysis with US Airways; and technical director at MITRE CAASD. She also served as co-chairperson of the RTCA Free Flight Select Committee. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Indiana University and a master’s degree in computer science from American University.

With eight employees and $2 million in operating revenue, RTCA is a small but influential organization that relies on industry and government volunteers serving on issue-oriented special committees to achieve agreement. Functioning as a federal advisory committee, it produces recommendations that are used by FAA as the basis for policy, program and regulatory decisions.

While Watrous helped to build the modern RTCA — it reported a record 415 members in 2008 — Jenny has been tasked with rebranding it as the "go-to" forum for agreeing on technical standards, policies and investment strategies for the nation’s air transportation system.

Earlier this year, Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, and Peggy Gilligan, FAA associate administrator for Aviation Safety, put RTCA to the test, asking the organization to establish a special task force to hammer out consensus on the steps necessary to transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) by 2018, considered mid-term. RTCA’s closely watched NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force was given just seven months to produce final recommendations.

In late July, Avionics Magazine Editor Bill Carey and Managing Editor Emily Feliz met with Jenny at RTCA’s downtown Washington, D.C., offices. She discussed her first year as president of the organization, the importance of achieving NextGen and her long-term vision for RTCA.

You are nearing the end of your first year as RTCA president, succeeding David Watrous, who served 17 years in that position. How would you summarize this first year?

Jenny: I’ve just been really amazed by the number of volunteers who support this organization. It’s really what we’re all about, and there are a lot of them who are very, very dedicated to getting results. I was brought in here by the board of directors to rebrand RTCA, to make it more of the go-to place to be able to forge consensus on some of the toughest issues facing the aviation community. So in doing that, I’m really working toward trying to streamline a lot of the processes. What we provide is the leadership and the framework and the place for the different stakeholders to come together. I’ve discovered that there are some processes that probably can be improved, some best practices that can be documented so they can be more repeatable... and just upgrading our infrastructure so that we can support the volunteers better. The literally hundreds, close to thousands, of volunteer hours spent here and a staff that works really well as a team, [were] nice to discover when I got here.

Avionics: Before coming to RTCA, you headed an aviation consulting firm, MJF Strategies, and before that served in technical and operations analysis roles with MITRE and US Airways, and as vice president of corporate business development with ARINC. How has your varied background served you in leading RTCA?

Jenny: All of those things combined [have been] a good match for this job. The job has to do with bringing lots of disparate stakeholders with different views together. I’ve really worked all sides of the community from the perspective of different kinds of stakeholders.

MITRE is closely aligned with FAA and understands the government side and the objectivity that we have to bring here at RTCA. [I went] from there to an airline that understands the user’s perspective, and ARINC, which understands the supplier’s perspective, where I learned a lot more about the communications, navigation, surveillance part of the job.

At US Airways, I reported to the CFO, but my job really was trying to get the operations [people] and the pilots to be able to speak the same language as the finance people, or at least to be able to understand each other. So I did a lot of translating and trying to bring those two sides together, so that when the operations wanted to invest in something, you could help the finance people understand what it was, and vice versa. We did a lot of business process reengineering there, so I got to know the entire spectrum of what goes on in an airline, from planning to the day of operations. At MITRE, I did a lot of modeling, simulation and analysis, so I really learned a lot about how you can use simulation [in] making decisions based on supporting information. As a person who works in finance, Kris Burnham, at the FAA, likes to say, we’d rather do fact-based than faith-based decision making.

All of that [contributed], understanding the different stakeholders, understanding the technology part of it, but also the political and policy part of it.

Avionics: This is a tumultuous time for the aviation industry, with the airline and business aviation sectors, in particular, facing great economic pressure. RTCA is a member-based organization, and relies on industry and government representatives serving voluntarily on committees to develop consensus recommendations. Is RTCA being affected by what is happening in the greater aviation world?

Jenny: We are noticing a little bit of reluctance to come to as many meetings, to travel as much. I think everybody’s noticing that. Having said that, I find that when it’s an activity that really is getting a lot of attention and is really critical to a lot of the stakeholders, they tend to get here. But understanding that it is tough times for a lot of organizations... to the extent possible, we’re using virtual meeting capabilities and teleconferencing in ways that they were never used before. We sometimes have meetings where there will be two people in the room and 50 people on the phone. That helps a lot for the domestic meetings; for the international ones it’s a little more difficult because of the time [differences]. But we are establishing, like I say, virtual meeting capabilities and a whole collaborative environment that will probably be on-line early next year, that allows people to go there and see what’s happening and provide inputs that can be read later.

Avionics: RTCA Special Committees develop Minimum Operational Performance Standards (MOPS) that provide industry with technical guidance. How many special committees are active?

Jenny: [There are] 17, soon to be 18. There is one that will be started on the wireless environment outside of the airport. We have some that have been around a while that aren’t quite as active and some that are extremely active. We have the technical committees that provide MOPS and also Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards (MASPS) that are more system-wide, and other guidance documents. On the policy side, we have the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee (ATMAC), and that provides guidance on things that are more policy and operations related. Under the ATMAC, we have a requirements and planning subgroup; we have an ADS-B subgroup. It’s another place where our stakeholders and our sponsors like the FAA can set up groups that are really focused on a specific area, to bring the stakeholders together but not to develop standards necessarily. Right now, under the ATMAC, there are two standing subgroups and they sometimes break into working groups beneath them.... The ATMAC operates as a Federal Advisory Committee, just as our Program Management Committee and all of our special committees operate. Those meetings are all open to the public. It’s another mechanism that FAA uses to be able to go out and embrace all of industry.

Avionics: This also is a momentous time in the industry, with increased funding and more attention on systems and technologies that underpin the Next Generation Air Transportation System. How important in your opinion is the concept, the vision of NextGen to the industry, and what is RTCA’s role in making it happen?

Jenny: I think NextGen is important if it’s viewed as the impetus for evolving the air transportation system, as opposed to a 2025 vision, which is a somewhat difficult thing to articulate at this point.

An organization like the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) focuses on the further-out concept of how it will all work beyond 2018, and works across the agencies to develop concepts that will ultimately be embraced by FAA and become plans. RTCA’s sweet spot is once they become plans, everything we do is focused on how to implement those kinds of recommendations, [to] develop the standards for the capabilities.... We’re discovering that there’s a little bit of a gap in the confidence that the customers have, the industry has, in the FAA’s ability to deliver the benefits. There’s a little bit of a trust gap there. What we’re learning on the [NextGen] Task Force is that, to the extent that the FAA can deliver benefits on technology and investments that have already been made in the aircraft — things like RNP/RNAV — they’re going to be more likely to want to invest in the technologies that are considered the underpinning of NextGen, like ADS-B and data comm. It’s really about an evolution, and RTCA is all about how to implement and get over all the challenges to getting benefits. And we’re working to coordinate closely with the JPDO so we don’t have overlaps.

Avionics: The recommendations of the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force (Task Force 5) are awaited by industry, FAA and Congress. How important is this Task Force, and what can be its contribution to NextGen?

Jenny: Expectations are really high, that’s definitely true. What the Task Force is going to do is tell the FAA, deliver a consensus of all the industry, on what it is we want to see implemented and where, between now and 2018; what are the challenges to implementing those capabilities; and what are some mitigating strategies for overcoming those challenges. And finally, what’s a good institutional mechanism going forward, once we deliver the recommendations, for there to be joint tracking of progress on those commitments. It’s bringing everyone together and deciding what we want to do.

What we’re going to do is deliver a [short] list that is very long on detail. We have spent the majority of the last six or seven months, once we identified the capabilities, laying out all the things that have to happen to implement them. That’s everything from does [a capability] need controller or pilot training, does it change their roles, do we need to change the airspace, do we need new procedures, do we need new policies? We’ve identified all of those things. So when we hand this to the FAA, it will be actionable, it will be very clear exactly what it is that has to happen. That will make it a lot easier to put a joint plan together and move forward.

Avionics: RTCA and Avionics Magazine have teamed to present the Task Force recommendations at the "NowGen NEXT" conference Sept. 15 in Washington, D.C. What should attendees expect to learn at this conference?

Jenny: The airlines are saying: we want a plan that is well articulated and that starts by giving us benefit from what we’ve already implemented. If we can see that sort of activity happening and we start to realize benefits from technology that’s already on the airplane, then that starts to build the trust that’s so necessary to move forward with NextGen. They’ll be much more likely to want to invest in the more sophisticated technologies.

One of the things that’s unique about the Task Force is that we have the finance people involved. From most of the airlines, we have either someone in the CFO’s office or someone who does fleet planning — someone who is responsible actually for making the financial decisions for the airline. And they will be hand-in-hand with their pilot and operator counterpart.

Each recommendation will include with it where we want it implemented and who in the operator community is aligned and committed to investing in that recommendation provided all of those challenges are met. What we’ve learned from bringing those people in, is that the airlines aren’t inclined to invest in even things like ADS-B if they don’t understand and don’t see a clear, high return on investment... that at least can be broken into bite-size pieces so they can get that return in the near term.

The other thing that’s been interesting about this Task Force is that initially, it is very driven by operators. We had over 300 people on the Task Force. A good percentage of them come from industry, from the suppliers. What we said to all of them was, if you want to put a capability on the table, you’ve got to have an airline with you or a business aviation partner, somebody who’s an operator with you saying yes, they want that capability. So nothing got on the list to begin with... if it didn’t have at least an operator and a location associated with it. That was a little frustrating for some of the technology people, but in the end I think it’s worked out pretty well. We won’t be making recommendations that no one is going to sign up for.

Avionics: At the Task Force plenary meeting July 23, Steve Vail of FedEx, who serves as a working group co-chairman, spoke of the need for "follow-on institutional mechanisms" to continue the work of the Task Force beyond Aug. 31. How do you hope to continue that work?

Jenny: We’ve already entered into some discussions with the [FAA] Administrator, Randy Babbitt, COO Hank Krakowski and Associate Administrator for Safety Peggy Gilligan on what we will do going forward. Their thought is that it makes sense to use an existing mechanism, something like the ATMAC, where we’ll have a group of people who can track progress. Beyond that, one thing that most people who have worked with RTCA know, is that all we can do is deliver recommendations. The FAA can take them or leave them. In this case, it’s pretty clear that they’re poised to embrace them. It’s going to require some changes to the way they’re planning their modernization programs. It could require them to integrate differently, to reemphasize some things and deemphasize others. As they do that, they’ll come back with a revised plan.

So the plan is that we would then have a group, probably something like the RNP Working Group or something under the ATMAC, who would be sort of a standing group that [works] back and forth with the FAA to make sure that we have a plan everyone agrees with going forward and then tracks progress on it. Not only does the FAA have to make investments and meet milestones, so do the operators.

Avionics: What is your long-term vision for RTCA?

Jenny: The vision is that we do become the go-to place for the industry when there’s a really tough issue that needs consensus across all the constituents. To that end, part of my vision is to develop and continue to enhance our infrastructure, to be able to support all the volunteers that come and work here. Also, probably to expand to a small cadre of people who would provide a little more analytic capability. One of the other things that we’ve learned about making recommendations is that absent an analytic approach, the list becomes the one that the loudest, most relentless person in the room put on the list. We’ve worked really hard on the Task Force. Not only do we require anything that went on the [capabilities] list to have an operator behind it, we actually require that you bring data to the table. We’ve collected all that data and all that data will be delivered with our recommendations.

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