What do NextGen and the Gulf oil spill have in common?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consider the similarities between the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the FAA’s recent announcement setting requirements for ADS-B Out equipment to fly under the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. In both cases, everybody hopes something will work but can’t be sure; expenses are gushing out; and all parties are looking to protect their own hides.

The cornerstone of NextGen, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), has had its problems in some of the areas where it is being used. In early operations, where it is being tested, there were difficulties handing off aircraft from one controller to the next and problems identifying the correct aircraft. FAA is making adjustments as the problems surface.

The FAA has requested $1.14 billion for NextGen in fiscal 2011. Total cost is expected to be about $20 billion. Government watchers know federal programs always far exceed estimates. At least $4 billion will be needed to install equipment in about 7,000 airliners and 200,000 general aviation aircraft. Basic equipment in GA aircraft can run from $5,000 to more than $10,000. Then, there are the military aircraft that must be outfitted.

The Air Transport Association says airlines are studying the requirements and want to see benefits. Airlines also believe the government should pay at least some of the cost of equipping their aircraft, saying air transportation benefits the public and the economy.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has a “wait and see” approach, saying many of its members do not use the airspace where NextGen equipment will be required, so they might not face the added expenses.

On the flip side, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) congratulates FAA on the rule. Pete Bunce, GAMA’s president and CEO, commended Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt “for taking on modernization with such energy and focus.”

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) also applauded Babbitt’s leadership. NBAA has long supported ADS-B as a cornerstone of NextGen technology “because of its potential to expand capacity, enhance safety, and reduce the environmental footprint for all of aviation.”

Not so fast, say officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), who note that aircraft owners are being asked to invest thousands of dollars in new equipment that only duplicates what already exists with today’s radio transponders. AOPA has always insisted that the new system must be benefits-driven, including benefits to the flying public and not just the FAA. The only beneficiary to the new rule for ADS-B Out, AOPA declares, is the FAA. The association says it still is committed to satellite-based navigation and will continue trying to work with the FAA on low-cost solutions.

So, what will NextGen do for all the billions of dollars invested? Will it permit faster flights? Probably. Instead of flying zig-zag legs of different headings between ground-based VOR stations, flights can fly direct, weather and traffic permitting. Aircraft should be able to fly closer to one another as on-board equipment will give pilots real-time views of other aircraft.

Will this increased in-flight efficiency relieve congestion at major airports? Ah, there’s the question. The three dozen or so airports where congestion is at its worse are at or near capacity. Only a few — if any — additional flights can come and go at these airports, particularly when weather conditions are adverse. More runways are needed — where it is possible to build them — or more airports. Flying faster between airports is of no value if there are delays for departures and arrivals.

Also, if controllers are needed in the towers and centers along the way, there are limits to how many there can be. A finite number of flights can be handled by each controller. (It is has been reported, for instance, that if the telephone system still had to depend on operators to make personal contact connections instead of callers having a direct dialing automated system, every female in the United States over the age of 21 would be needed as telephone operators.)

NextGen changes only two items in air transportation: Slightly faster navigation routing and better cockpit identification of surrounding aircraft to permit closer separations. What will be the secondary effects of these benefits? If air transportation is to grow, how much is possible before the limit of controllers is reached? Will the public welcome additional airports? Will the airlines accept spreading departures and arrivals to more locations if more fields are built? Will there be demands to restrict non-air carrier flights— general aviation and cargo — at the busiest airports?

Until these and other questions are resolved — or at least recognized and minds put to work on them — is the expenditure of billions of dollars for NextGen in the best interests of aviation?

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

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