The NextGen horizon is one where the line between sky and ground fades to indistinguishable; pilot and air-traffic controller are privy to the same information, in real-time, and aircraft operations through shared data and automation are optimized from gate to gate. Demand and capacity exist in harmony, travelers travel efficiently and carbon is conserved.
Within NextGen, the paradigm shift of Air Traffic Management (ATM) emphasizes “trajectory-based” operations, evoking the image of a gently ascending and descending gradient with no step-downs or holding patterns. “The users’ requirement of being able to fly the ‘optimal’ trajectory will become the leading objective of ATM service provision,” states an Airbus circular. “Putting the aircraft trajectory at the core of the network represents a huge change of the current operational concept and system architecture. Each aircraft becomes one node within a system-wide information management network, connecting all actors in the air and on the ground.”
That’s the vision, anyway. Industry experts who spoke during the Avionics Magazine webinar, “Issues in Air Traffic Management,” suggested the Holy Grail of ATM is only barely coming into view. As moderator, I detected exasperation at the pace of the transformation to ATM, from today’s regimented, ground-based radar and control grid to those gently sloping trajectories.
What has happened thus far is not transformational, asserted Neil Planzer, vice president of Global ATM Solutions with Boeing Air Traffic Management. “NextGen has two paths it can follow,” he said. “It can continue on the modernization of equipage on the ground and (new) technologies. It can replace radars with ADS-B as a surveillance alternative. It can work on overlaying RNP routes and GLS approaches. All of that is technology modernization and insertion. It is not a transformational system.”
A former long-time FAA and DoD executive, Planzer in October was awarded the prestigious Glen A. Gilbert Memorial Award from the Air Traffic Control Association, which described him as a “tireless advocate” for the aviation industry. He’s not a pessimist, but he’s clearly not satisfied with the status quo. With NextGen at a fork in the road, “we either continue the ability to modernize and use technology replacement or we look for a transformational system that meets growing needs,” he said. “What’s missing eight years into NextGen? It’s the same things that were needed in the beginning. It is no clear ability to understand how we are going to link airplanes to the infrastructure. We’re in a seventh generation of jet aircraft, but we are still using second generation air traffic control.”
Of similar mind was Metron Aviation President Jack Kies, a 30-year air traffic control veteran who managed FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va., and later served as director, System Operations. “When I look around the system today, I see very little, it seems to me, that has changed in the way operations occur,” Kies said. “They’re still generally handled the way they’ve always been … especially with respect to the amount of time between city pairs.”
They cited operations between city pairs, airport surface operations and procedures that take advantage of current aircraft capabilities as areas where the ATM vision can begin to be realized. Planzer argues technology investments should be tied to “outcome metrics,” or demonstrated benefits in reducing gate-to-gate travel times, increasing runway utilization capacity or achieving other gains.
Outcome metrics, guaranteed by the government, would support third-party financing and early adoption of the needed avionics — ADS-B, data communications, displays — to operate within the system. “The government guarantees (equipage) using outcome metrics,” Planzer explained. “If the FAA does not realize the metric in three years, the government services the loan. They pay the interest. If the FAA does not achieve the outcome in the following three years, the government is in default and they pay the loan.”
Without measurable outcomes, NextGen itself could be endangered, Planzer warned.
“If we do not have something tangible in the next five years, they’re going to shut the program down. In today’s economy, they are not going to continue to spend several billion dollars... on a program that’s not producing benefit,” he said.
Bill Carey is the editor in chief of Avionics Magazine. He can be reached at 301-354-1818 or [email protected].