After seven months of intensive meetings involving some 300 aviation industry stakeholders, the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force issued a final report on Sept. 9, 2009. Some of the recommendations may be reflected in FAA’s latest NextGen Implementation Plan, due this month. We asked several of the participants in the Task Force to describe the thinking behind the recommendations, which could influence aviation for the next decade.
‘Excellent Head Start’
These are the words FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt used to describe the recommendations of the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force at the NowGenNEXT conference Sept. 15. Following that conference, organized by RTCA and Avionics Magazine, we assembled an on-line panel with four participants in the Task Force. Below are excerpts of the discussion.
Ray Glennon, RTCA
The focus was to come up with a small list of operational capabilities long on details... rather than focusing on technologies. One of the things that drove the Task Force was the idea that these capabilities needed to be capabilities that were desired by a particular operator, and to be able to describe in appropriate detail what that capability was, where it would be required and where it would be able to deliver benefits, and when that capability would be able to do that. Critical to all of this was that it was based on a performance-based operating environment; it wasn’t a technology specific approach to the problem.
Unlike earlier task force efforts, we also included the operators’ financial decision makers to try to get an assessment of the costs and benefits and [recognizing] that any modernization needs to be operationally and financially beneficial. The Task Force developed actionable recommendations, and those recommendations were run through an analytic and objective assessment process that was also tempered with operational input, and the goal was to provide recommendations with a maximum benefit and a minimum risk. The goal truly was to start the community on a joint path to implementation by building mutual trust and confidence.
Over 330 individuals participated in one or more of our seven plenary meetings. Those individuals were from 141 different organizations.
... To merely deploy a data communications network, or the ERAM updates associated with data communications, may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to enable weather reroutes or revised predeparture clearances to be delivered. You deploy ADS-B infrastructure for what you can do with it, such as reduced aircraft separation or efficient merging and spacing. The key point being: we’re looking to deliver capabilities, not technologies.
... In addition to seven operational domain areas (see chart, page 27), which had 29 specific operational capabilities addressed in them, there were four recommendations considered critical to success that were overarching. One was to achieve the existing 3 and 5 nautical mile separation standards that exist in the system today through changing culture and some of the buffers that get built into the system today; to incentivize investments; streamline the operational approval of the new technology; and then to collaborate with FAA and the aviation community on post Task Force implementation.
Capt. David Strand
As we looked at these problem areas, one of the key problems that we have as operators, whether it’s a major airline or a business jet or even light aircraft General Aviation, is trying to measure what our level of benefit is from one of these [capabilities]. We implement an operational capability that will mitigate the problems we have; how do we measure this for the CEOs and CFOs of our respective corporations?... We had to look at each one of the problem areas and figure out how we were going to come up with a metric.
In the Elements group we had, we took each one of these problem areas they had developed in the earlier part of the Task Force — a list of about 125 operational capabilities — and we assessed each one of these for what are the issues that would have to be addressed prior to implementation of one of these operational capabilities by the 2015-2018 time frame.
The other area that had to be addressed was operational approvals. Operational approvals, by necessity, have become very complex. But by the same token, if we are able to come up with a plan to provide the benefits from these problems areas and solve these, we can’t be held hostage for a couple of years trying to work through operational approval. We needed to find a way to work that in parallel.
... People look at Data Comm and say, ’well, isn’t that a technology?’... It’s something that we found was a required enabler for a majority of these problem areas if we were going to solve them. It is the way that we’re going to be able to change the mindset, the real way that a controller is able to manage the airspace. That became something of high importance and it was something we [described] as a cross-cutting capability that went across several of the operational capabilities.
... As we were looking at these operational capabilities, it became clear that the way we were going to be able to tackle these was from a metroplex or airport-centric approach.
... There were obvious areas of opportunity depending on equipage levels of aircraft in certain regions. Today, we have a certain percentage of airplanes that are equipped and capable of data comm over VDL Mode 2 in the NAS, but those aircraft tend to be operated in certain regions or in certain metroplex areas. The other thing that a metroplex-centric approach allows us to do to gain benefits early on is, when you look at areas such as Chicago and Midway, or in the New York area, with LaGuardia, Teterboro, Islip, Newark and JFK, these airports, just because of their geographic location, create conflicts with one another depending on the direction of operation and the orientation of the runways.
Coming up with ways to deconflict some of the airport operations to where we’re not impacting adjacent ones is something we found we’d be able to do early on if we implemented some of these capabilities [without requiring] a huge level of investment or training for the controllers or the flight crews. That was really kind of the basic premise of the Task Force. What is the low-hanging fruit, and in order to accomplish that, looking at it from a metroplex standpoint became an obvious way to approach this.
... We had financial people working in parallel and in conjunction with us.... It is a challenge that we recognized early on that had to be addressed if we were ever going to be able to make these business cases. In this particular economic environment, corporate requirements are that we have a payback in as little as 12 or sometimes 24 months.... If you add all of these together by cross cutting this across several different capabilities — TFM, tailored arrivals, CPDLC weather reroutes — now you have the business case that can make the case for the financial people.
Bob Hilb, Aviation Consultant
I looked at the capabilities that I would call shovel-ready, mature capabilities. I think those are the kind that we can move forward on very quickly, and that’s surface surveillance; the ASDE-X program that’s being deployed; RNAV and RNP have been around for awhile and are being deployed; closely spaced parallel approaches down to 3400 feet — we just need to expand the usage. Enroute data link has been tried before and at least the initial implementations of it can be used and we need to take advantage of those. Traffic Management Advisor, again, that’s been deployed at a number of airports and it just needs to continue expansion. Low-altitude access and LPVs — LPVs are being deployed, and the ADS-B infrastructure is being put out there for increasing low-altitude access for the general aviation community.
I would call less mature recommendations [those that are] very traceable to NextGen, but [with] some question on the technologies and a fair amount of work to be done before we can really move forward. That’s like Integrated ATM. FAA needs to do a lot of work in integrating the whole picture, in getting the SWIM information out to everyone so that we have a total picture of what’s going on in the NAS. I think that’s critical. There is a fair amount of work that still needs to be done in that direction. Special Activity Airspace management; obviously there is a lot of negotiation that has to occur with the Department of Defense, so I think that may take a while to get where we want to go with that, especially making sure that the military needs are accommodated. Converging and crossing runway utilization — work’s been done on that for quite a while and it’s not quite ready to be implemented. I think there are some alternatives that need to be looked at.
So again, more work [to be done] but certainly a big payback. Same with closely spaced parallel approaches less than 3400 feet. We’re getting to the point where if we want to go much below 3400 feet, we do have to have better ways of alerting the crew that there has been a blunder and [enable them] to do a missed approach. Then airspace redesign; I think that’s critical to NextGen and it really needs to be done. But we do have some competing capabilities here. In some of the large metroplex [areas], New York City for instance, to really separate the airports so they can operate independently... we probably need to go down the RNP route. [But] we don’t quite have the equipage levels we do with RNAV, so if we try to do an airspace redesign that’s based on RNAV it may not get us where we want to go and we may have to come back and do an RNP redesign.
The Task Force was very short-term, and a lot of the things that we need to delve into a lot deeper, we really didn’t have time. That’s why the work needs to continue. I think it’s critical for us to do an integrated CNS/ATM approach. The ICAO FANS work in the eighties showed that that’s really where you get your major benefit, where you can really get the maximum capacity and efficiency out of the system. And I think it goes back to the business case decision also. Bundling within, for instance, a datalink is great, and you can build a business case. But you’re kind of building that in a silo. Are you really integrating it across all the technologies and getting the best use of data communications? The same thing can be said about navigation or surveillance.
You really need to integrate those technologies. If you’re really going to go in and do a major retrofit on the aircraft, you don’t want to go in and do datalink this year and RNP next year, add the GPS the next year and then do ADS-B the next year. The out-of-service [time] would just kill you.
So you really have to have the integrated package and put those together. I think that integrated package is the only way we’re going to move from air-traffic control to air-traffic management, just as we have moved to the flight management systems on the aircraft, [where] the pilots do a lot less hands on.... It reflects in the work of the FAA also. We can’t look at all these technologies in a silo and try to optimize a subsystem. We have to take a look at the total system and integration and come up with a total system optimization.
We have a problem with mixed equipage. RNAV/RNP is an example of that. We have a very large percentage of RNAV capability, but the RNP capability is not nearly that high. So we can move forward on RNAV but we certainly want to encourage people to take the step to RNP. We have such a broad spectrum of capabilities in our aircraft today that we have to do that major retrofit, [but] airlines can’t afford to do that right now. We really need to have a creative way of actually getting the money to the airlines so that they can make that major upgrade of all their equipment and up-level all the aircraft so that we don’t have the mixed equipage problem and so we can proceed faster... something like low-interest loans that you pay back out of the benefits. Something where we can get the Congress to say this is critical to the nation to move forward.
There also needs to be a little more work into mapping the next generation roadmap, taking these capabilities and showing a clear path where we’re going to go. There are some capabilities that were recommended by the Task Force that basically solve the same problem, especially, for instance, in the Cruise [domain]. There are six or seven that go after the same benefit. They are all good ideas, but which idea or combination of ideas or capabilities give you the biggest bang for your buck because I don’t think you can afford to do all of them. That’s something the FAA will have to do, to basically take a look at alternatives analysis.... The Task Force really looked at the cost/benefit from an operator’s perspective. Obviously there’s government costs involved and complexity, so the total investment needs to be looked at and evaluated.
Items Outside The Scope
... Operators need [an Avionics Roadmap] when they’re out buying equipment. They need to know which piece of equipment is ready now, which one is coming down the road. For instance, if you’re out buying a GPS today, you should probably take into account that GPS III and Galileo will require a different antenna than the one being put on aircraft today. If I was an operator out there putting on a GPS, I would want to make sure that not only is the GPS capable of being upgraded to handle the new frequency but also that the antenna is capable of handling things down the line.
Michael Romanowski, FAA
We’ve been talking about a lot of the complexities of NextGen, but more importantly we’ve been talking about a path forward together. On that point, it’s incredibly successful what the Task Force has done.... This was not an easy challenge. A year ago, the questions we were facing were not how do we move forward with NextGen together and what are the priorities, they were ‘what is NextGen?’ What the Task Force has done has served to bring a coalescence of all the stakeholders on how to move forward, so that is a huge benefit.
One of the things we recognized when we looked at sponsoring the Task Force, and asking for the Task Force to occur, was the fact that Next Gen deployment is not just an FAA responsibility. There are things that we are deploying in infrastructure, things that get deployed in procedures, but at the same time we also need to have the investment by the private sector; the operators to equip their aircraft in a number of areas; we have to have manufacturers producing the avionics and the like. Recognizing that a year ago, we felt that we really needed to jump-start this discussion, and we needed to have this under a very tight timeframe if we were going to make the impact that we need to make together. [We asked] will the industry come together and examine and make recommendations on strategies to accelerate the achievement of benefits? Then, along with that, to incorporate capabilities in an aircraft, you’ve got to make a business case. So how can we facilitate the business case for investment by the private sector? Those were the key motivations behind the Task Force. Given where we are right now, with the clear priorities that have emerged, I think we’re well positioned to move forward.
The Task Force clearly comes out and validates an approach that says we have to implement NextGen incrementally. We have to build on existing capabilities that are resident in our systems today, and resident in our aircraft today. That’s the only way we’re going to get to the long-term full implementation of all the NextGen capabilities. The Task Force said, while we’re addressing these priorities, ’don’t stop there, keep doing the other things you’re doing’ to incorporate the capabilities that are not explicitly called out here.
There are still a lot of details that we need to work together. In terms of how we’re proceeding here in the FAA: We’ve been doing a lot of work internally on our nominal planning [going forward] the next year or two (see chart, right). That factors in as well with what we have been doing with execution because there’s been a lot of good activity going on there, and feeding that back in. At the same time, we have a new administration. It’s been clearly articulated from the president on down, through the Secretary of Transportation to the new administrator, [Randy] Babbitt, that NextGen is an administration priority, it’s a national priority to do this. They asked us to take a look at how we can accelerate NextGen. We created a number of scenarios internally; at the same time the Task Force was looking at some of those similar issues.
What we see really is a coalescence of the thinking of how to move this forward. What we’re doing right now is we’re going through, assessing those recommendations against the current planning and thinking that we have, identifying where the gaps are, what adjustments need to be made in the planning, what adjustments may need to be made from a budgetary point of view, a resource allocation point of view. We’re working to incorporate all of that into our NextGen Implementation Plan that reflects this thinking, which will be released in January.
As I said, NextGen is a joint enterprise; there’s an FAA component of this, there’s an industry component, and obviously all of that has to be cooperative for it to be successful. In terms of looking at coordinating the response to the recommendations and how we move forward together, on the external side we have the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee. The Task Force asked us to utilize the ATMAC as a means to keep linkage in terms of where the planning is and the execution, and we intend to do that. We’ve also asked for the establishment of the NextGen Implementation Work Group, which was another of the Task Force’s recommendations. It’s really the leadership team of the Task Force, the co-chairs, the working group co-leads and the subgroup leads. We asked that this be established as a transitional vehicle for us to really ensure that we understand all the subtleties and details and the key thrusts of the recommendations. We’re going to be convening with that group in the very near future. We want to make sure we understand the intent of those recommendations as we’re looking at how we’re addressing them.
We also need to get into some of the issues on the business case. What are the priorities within the recommendations? For example, if a recommendation says let’s deploy at all OEP airports, clearly some of those are going to have a higher priority than others. How would we go and establish those priorities as we move forward? In addition, we have a strong internal process that ensures accountability and transparency of actions within the agency.
An archived version of the webinar, "NextGen Task Force: Applying The Recommendations," is available at aviationtoday.com/webinars.