Next generation ATC: What will it be and how will we pay for it?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pilots and aircraft owners will be getting new equipment and learning new procedures in the coming years as the FAA develops and puts into operation its next generation air transportation system (NextGen). The cost to the FAA will mean increasing its budget to more than $1 billion a year for the next 20 years.

These facts came out during a Senate aviation subcommittee hearing looking into what is being developed by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), a group that includes officials from the FAA, Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security, plus NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

There is now recognition that air traffic management with one-on-one pilot-controller contact and ground-based radar will not meet the needs of traffic growth. “”Technology will change the way America flies,”” FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said. “”Aircraft will be able to use information technology in a more robust way, with enhanced cockpit and landing capabilities, and far more comprehensive and accurate knowledge of real-time weather and traffic conditions.””

Blakey said development of the new systems will be a challenging task but one that is necessary because air traffic is forecast to triple in the next 20 years. This, she admitted, cannot be handled by humans using World War II technology. There must be automation, she emphasized.

The most promising technology is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). This system uses satellites and provides radar-like separation procedures and near real-time weather information and NOTAMS to the cockpit. Not only does ADS-B provide for more efficient flight, it also adds to safety. In Alaska, where 70% of communities are reachable only by air, the accident rate for ADS-B-equipped aircraft decreased 49%.

The next generation system will be “”more flexible, resilient, adaptive, and highly automated,”” Blakey said.

Cost will be a vital factor —not only how much it will cost pilots and companies, but also how to fund the new technology the FAA needs to make it work. “”We cannot create a next generation system that is not affordable,”” she said. FAA officials have been meeting with the airline sector and the administrator said representatives will be meeting with general aviation.

How much private interests might be willing to invest to operate in the NextGen system will be vital. “”Achieving many of the benefits will require users of the system — airlines and general aviation — to purchase NextGen-compatible technologies,”” said Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). He added the willingness of users to invest in new equipment will depend, in part, on their assurance of the government’s full commitment.

Dillingham also questioned whether the FAA has the expertise to manage the NextGen effort or if it might have to go to outside contractors.

Current financial estimates are still fuzzy. Many believe that the government cost estimates are low. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chair of the full Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, warned that no real decisions can be made until it is determined where the money is coming from. “”We must get the money first and then decide what can be done,”” he declared. “”If OMB (Office of Management and Budget) doesn’t know what’s coming, we’re in real trouble.””

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed with witnesses and other members of the subcommittee that a consistent level of funding will be needed, but he declared a greater portion will have to come from the general fund, not from user fees. “”We won’t go for that,”” he told Blakey. Any fee proposal, he said, “”will get an anti from OMB and from us.””

Chair of the subcommittee, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), told the witness panel that Congress will “”hold your feet to the fire”” to get the NextGen moving along, but they “”must get good people in the right places.””

Developing a new system faces many hurdles. One that will be difficult to assess is how much, how quickly, and how well pilots and companies accustomed to a ground-based system accept a switch to one with a satellite base that relies more on information in the cockpit than guidance from the ground.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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