Could NextGen ground GA?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When good developments are made, most people are delighted and few consider the secondary effects. These, however, are often significant. Take the unintended consequences of NextGen.

It has been said a secondary effect of the development of the cheap transistor radio was important in bringing turmoil in the Middle East. Prior to that development, many residents of some nations in that region could not read and lived in unconnected tribes. The cheap radio made widespread communication possible, enabling unification of tribes into stronger governments.

What does this have to do with aviation? Let’s look at the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Among the many alleged advantages, NextGen will speed traffic, reduce travel routes, and allow less distances separating flights. These will be needed to safely and more efficiently handle increased air traffic.

Forecasts from the FAA expect revenue passenger miles to increase for U.S. airlines from 814.6 billion in 2011 to 1.57 trillion in 2032. The air carrier fleet, including cargo carriers, is forecast to grow from 7,185 aircraft in 2011 to 9,853 in 2032. The number of GA aircraft is expected to increase from 222,520 in 2011 to 253,205 in 2032.

One of the secondary effects of this growth will be: Where are we going to put all these airplanes on the ground?

By 2015, FAA information indicates that with planned improvements, six major airports will need more capacity. Without these planned improvements, 18 will need more capacity. In some locations not only the current airports need added capacity but so, too, do the entire metropolitan areas. The FAA lists seven metropolitan areas that will need increased capacity. Even with planned improvements at six airports in these areas, four metropolitan areas will still need additional capacity. These constraints are expected in just three years.

By 2025, 14 airports and metropolitan areas need additional capacity — and unless there are on-going improvements, 27 airports and metropolitan areas will need improvements and additional capacity.

Building airports or improving them is a long, tedious affair. In the past 30 years fewer than five major airports have been built in the United States (Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth, O’Hare, and Austin). There have been a few smaller airports built, but many have closed.

Years are required to gain community support for an airport and many more years for construction. Public opposition, environmental issues, funding, and dealing with real estate developers are a few of the issues that must be settled before actual construction can begin.

This needed additional capacity is primarily at major airports in metropolitan areas. Why should this concern general aviation? Here, again, secondary effect might come into play. If there is not enough capacity to accommodate aircraft, there is little question about what segment of flight will get restricted. These restrictions could be added fees, regulations for new equipment, denial of use, limited hours, restricted numbers, or any other type of restraint government minds can conceive. Limited capacity is not limited to airports only, but to the airspace around them and the air traffic management system.

Reaching capacity maximums at metropolitan areas can have a ripple effect to even the smallest GA facility. Use of a personal or charter aircraft will have reduced value if it cannot be used where and when it is wanted or needed.

America’s highway system was in similar difficulties 60 years ago. Highways were two-lane concrete or asphalt strips and interstate routes went through major cities, not around them. President Dwight Eisenhower saw the problem. So did William Randolph Hearst, Jr.

At that time about nine out of 10 people in the U.S. were exposed to some Hearst communication — newspapers, news service, magazines, radio stations, and television stations. Hearst provided the campaign to gain public support and Eisenhower provided political push.

Hearst appointed William Lampe, an editor of one newspaper, to head the “Better Roads Campaign.” All went to work. In 18 months Congress approved a massive super-highway program with public support.

Can it be done for aviation?

(A personal note: I was a member of the Hearst organization at that time and saw how a plan and united effort gave the public its road travel flexibility.)


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



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  1. Rod Beck says

    And here’s a REAL wakeup call – check our latest blog on “FBO Wanted”? This is a SERIOUS problem brewing – result – lack of DEMAND!

  2. Frank R. Sandoval says

    Another wakeup-call article for General Aviation from your visionary pen. Thank you for sharing your insight and experience with us.  

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