ATM Modernization, Commercial, Embedded Avionics, Military

FAA’s New Deputy Administrator Discusses Challenges Of NextGen Transition

By Tish Drake | September 1, 2010
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Michael P. Huerta was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as FAA deputy administrator on June 23. He was nominated to the position by President Obama last December, but the appointment was blocked by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. The hitch: Cornyn wanted FAA to expedite approval of a certificate of authorization (COA) allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection to base UAVs at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station and operate them along the Texas border. Cornyn announced that approval June 23.

As deputy administrator, Huerta is expected to play a leading role in FAA’s deployment of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). He will serve as the Designated Federal Official on a new RTCA committee focused on near and mid-term NextGen implementation, the successor to the influential Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee. He will be keynote speaker at the RTCA Fall Symposium, “The Technologies Fueling NextGen,” Sept. 22 in Washington, D.C.

Huerta comes to FAA after heading his own consulting firm, which advised clients on transportation policy, technology and financing. He previously served as president of the Transportation Solutions Group of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), developing toll-collection systems for transportation agencies, and as chairman of the board of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

A member of the Obama-Biden transition team for the Department of Transportation, Huerta also served in senior positions at DoT under President Clinton from 1993 to 1998. He was managing director of the organizing committee for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Avionics spoke with Huerta in his 10th floor office at FAA headquarters in Washington.

Q: Could you describe your role as FAA deputy administrator, and are you focused on specific areas or responsibilities in that capacity?

A: My principal role is to support the administrator — whatever the administrator needs, whatever Randy [Babbitt] wants. But in coming here, what we talked about, and what really my area of focus is, is the technology side of what we do. We are a very large, very complex operating organization and we have a big technological challenge in front of us. That’s my background, implementing large technology systems for transportation organizations. We’ve got probably as complicated and as significant a system as exists anywhere in the world. We have to balance a lot of competing objectives; we have to maintain above all else the safety of the system. It’s not like we’re just switching out a part in the system. We have to maintain an operating system, the integrity of that system, above all else the safety of that system, but at the same time migrate it to a new generation of technology.

Q: Your background includes considerable experience in the surface transportation sector, including time with ACS Transportation Solutions, and as a board member with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. Which lessons learned apply to the aviation sector?

A: When I was at ACS, we were in the business of supporting government customers; not federal government per se, but state and local public authorities, a lot of international providers of transportation. Everything that we did represented a collaboration and a partnership between the government provider of the service, their customers, their carriers, the private sector and public participants in the system. We were the technology provider that needed to figure out how to respond to the government imperatives but at the same time, meet the customer’s needs.

What was very significant about that was you needed to understand where your government partners were coming from. They operate in a very complex environment. They have to be responsive to the broader public policy concerns. They operate in a political environment and we can criticize that (but) it doesn’t really do any good to criticize it because the reality is, it’s there. You need to be able to adapt to it, react to it, and recognize that that’s out there. At the same time, you need to find the right areas of partnership that exist between the government and their private sector and public stakeholders.

When we did a toll system for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, it was a real fish bowl for us because we were coming in to replace a system that didn’t work really well. The public perception out there was “nothing works here. The turnpike authority can’t do anything right.” There was an imperative in that the governor had said, we will get it fixed in a certain number of months. Then they hired us; we had the timetable going in. The lesson you take from that is you have to have a very clear mission focus. You have to be very precise about what it is that you want to get done, when you need to get it done by, and then deploy your resources and establish your priorities in a way that is going to get you there. For someone like me, who was the chief executive leading that effort, don’t let your team get distracted by the news story that’s going to pop up or the new requirements that are going to come in. Yes, you are going to have to deal with all that, but don’t lose sight of your core mission.

Q: In your first speech as FAA deputy administrator, to the National Hispanic Coalition Conference in mid-July, you spoke of the “NextGen mindset” and making the “business case” for NextGen. Could you elaborate?

A: I asked the question, what is a NextGen mindset? The point that I was trying to make to them, and I think everyone gets it around here, is that NextGen is not a black box, it’s not like a new laptop or a new version of Windows or an iPhone. What NextGen represents for us is a substantial migration, not only in technology, but a real cultural change in how we operate as an agency. And that means that we really have to focus on partnerships, on collaboration, on how we can be nimble and flexible in ways that are challenging for any large organization. In many respects, it’s more challenging for an organization like the FAA, where you’ve done a job and done it very, very well for many years. There’s an understandable reluctance to mess that up by trying something different. But I think that everyone here understands that we’re in a very different world today than we were at the birth of aviation years and years ago. It’s a much more complex environment. We have a lot more traffic that we’re managing and technology has taken a quantum leap since then. Figuring out how to tie all that together means that we need to do business differently and that means it’s a different mindset we have to come to work with.

We are a very large, very complex operating organization and we have a big technological challenge in front of us. We’ve got probably as complicated and as significant a system as exists anywhere in the world.

Q: You will be serving as the Designated Federal Official of a new RTCA advisory group, including industry and government representation, focused on near- and mid-term NextGen implementation. In which areas do you expect the committee to focus first?

A: We’re trying to do two things. The first is, we need to get NextGen out of this perception that exists in some pockets, some quarters, that it’s this mythic place way off in the future that we’ll eventually get to, and that we’ll cross this threshold where we’ll wake up one day and be there. And it’s not that at all. There are a series of incremental steps that we’re taking and we need to be able to determine those and sequence those in a way that makes sense for our customers. We need their input on how do we make those decisions, how do we make those selections and how do we role out, in a step by step fashion, the pieces of what will ultimately come to be known as NextGen when it’s fully implemented. I kind of think of it as, we’re putting together a large puzzle. It’s made up of many, many pieces and we need to be able to talk about where those pieces go in the puzzle, how they all fit together.

We need to figure out what are the key things that are going to really make a difference in the short-to-near term for our industry and stakeholder partners, which are going to enable us to build the enthusiasm, to build the momentum and really help us be successful in rolling out the whole program.

Q: What are the key challenges, either technological, financial or institutional, facing NextGen implementation by 2020?

A: All of the above. It’s a large complex program that costs a lot of money. We’re in a time of constrained resources in government. But we’ve got to recognize that we’re making wise investments for the taxpayer. It’s not like we’re starting at the very beginning. We spent a lot of years working on a design and architecture for the system and that, I think, has served us very well as a foundation. But there are going to be things that just through the natural evolution of technology and business are going to change as we roll this out.

We need to be in a situation where we can be responsive to that and a little opportunistic, where we can take advantage of things that are beneficial to the system, that help us address costs, that are responsive to what our carriers are looking for. Carriers are in a very dynamic marketplace. We certainly hope the economy is improving; I think the President has put a lot of programs in place that are sending it in that direction. I think we’re confident. But five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, we don’t know what’s going to be happening, and we need to be flexible.

Q: What role might FAA serve to further incentivize industry to buy into NextGen, considering the large investments that must be made in equipment, training and operations?

A: We have to be willing to put ourselves out there and to say “this is what you can expect the system will provide and this is when you can expect it,” and we need to hit that. That is a lot of building credibility within the system.

I came out of private industry and I understand that mindset — sometimes we like to complain that it’s too short term, but business has very specific targets that need to be hit with respect to making an investment (and) expected payback timetables. If they are depending on us to do something to enable them to recapture that investment and hit their corporate targets, than we need to hit what we have promised to do. Building that confidence is probably one of the most important things that we can do.

Q: How important is FAA reauthorization and long-term funding stability?

A: The reauthorization timetable that we’ve been through has been, I think, frustrating and challenging for everyone. I think that everyone understands the need to have a long-term area of stability for the program. In any organization, it’s very hard to plan for a long-term vision, a long-term program of projects if you’re always, from one year to the next, not entirely sure where you’re going. In fairness, I think the Congress has been kind to us and has tried to, through the various extensions that we’ve been through, recognize that we have needs, and they’ve been supportive of those needs. I think we all wish there hadn’t been 15 [funding extensions]. But it is extremely important to get this done, and I’m hopeful that when the Congress returns later this year they’ll be able to resolve these remaining issues and deal with the long-term reauthorization.

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