Aviation industry leaders gathered in Atlantic City, N.J., in September for the Second Annual Avionics for NextGen conference, urging cooperation among industry stakeholders and action from regulatory bodies to move the massive airspace modernization initiative forward.
Panels discussed the various roadblocks to implementation including the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS); global airspace harmonization efforts; closing NextGen’s business case; and tackling NextGen implementation issues on Capitol Hill.
Bob Smith, vice president and chief technology officer at Honeywell Aerospace, kicked off the conference. He said parts obsolescence and evolving certification standards are obstacles for the aviation industry. Further, he called for companies to speed development time of NextGen-enabled technologies and for regulatory agencies, namely FAA, to speed the certification of new products to get the products into the hands of the operators more quickly. “Action or inaction will set the pace of growth for the aerospace industry,” he said.
He identified three trends in avionics the growth in IT performance; the interoperability of systems throughout the network; and the continuous flow of information needed around the world.
“The aircraft have the same desire to get this kind of information on and off the aircraft and it’s really going to be incumbent on this industry to figure out how to do that efficiently,” particularly in a world with mixed equipage and parts obsolescence, Smith said. “The opportunities we have more than outweigh any obstacles.”
Modernizing the airspace in the midst of these obstacles is a big task for the U.S. aviation industry, particularly with the backdrop of economic and political uncertainty in this country. Regardless, NextGen faces some key milestones in the coming years, including the 2015 mandate that UASs be integrated into the NAS and the 2020 equipage mandate for automatic surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) In capabilities, among others.
Several NextGen programs have made great strides, showing operational benefits for the users, conference attendees said, including the construction of the ADS-B ground infrastructure and Required Navigation Performance procedures around the country. ADS-B prime contractor ITT Exelis said the ground network has received FAA In-Service Decision and more than 460 sites have been constructed, with more than 70 sites in planning or under construction.
Additionally, just a few days after the conference, Harris Corp. was awarded a seven-year, $331 million contract to provide air/ground data communications. The Harris team includes Adfero Group, American Airlines, ARINC, The Brattle Group, CGH, EES, Egis Avia, GE, HCRQ, NATS, Sunhillo, Thales and Washington Consulting Group.
“[NextGen] is becoming real and we are moving forward on some of these commitments,” said Kris Burnham, director of investment planning and analysis at FAA.
At the same time, NextGen has faced some setbacks in recent months, including major schedule delays and budget overruns. According to a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this year, more than one-third of major air traffic control acquisition programs associated with the NextGen program have gone $4.2 billion beyond their initial estimates, and half have experienced schedule delays. At the same time, many operators have been reluctant to equip for future programs, citing questions about the initiative’s return on investment.
“More than three years after Task Force 5, we are not as far as we had hoped to be at this point … with the recommendations and the timelines that Task Force 5 set out there,” acknowledged Capt. Steve Dickson, senior vice president of flight operations at Delta Airlines. Dickson was on RTCA Task Force 5, which issued recommendations to FAA regarding NextGen implementation.
“On the other hand, there is some progress in some other areas, particularly with aircraft equipage that I did not anticipate three years ago. Airlines in the last 18 months have placed orders for hundreds of new narrowbody equipment that are coming onboard here in the next five or six years. That is really going to change the balance in terms of heavy users of the NAS are going to be in a much different place five years from now,” Dickson said.
He added return on investment isn’t the only hurdle for NextGen’s business case. He described the four legs to the NextGen stool as strategic fit for the company’s corporate objectives and goals; return on investment; benefit uncertainty, which can undermine an otherwise strong business case; and financial capacity of the operator.
Similarly, measuring those benefits or metrics are hard to quantify and hard to prove, panelists said. For example, an operator can fly a required navigation performance approach, with the navigational guidance provided by the air traffic controller, but there is no way to prove the approach was performed. That make the business case even harder, panelists said.
“Every single operator’s business case is different,” said Debby Kirkman, NextGen Performance Integration Lead at MITRE Corp.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), in his luncheon keynote address at the conference, echoed many of the panelists reassurances about the importance of NextGen for the safety and operations of the airspace.
Next year’s event will be held Sept. 17 at the Sheraton Atlantic City. Stay tuned to www.avionicsfornextgen.com for more details.