WASHINGTON, D.C. — It has been said by FAA officials that moving from the present air traffic control system to a satellite-based one is like trying to replace a flat tire on a car while it is speeding down the highway.
And while implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) may be behind schedule and over budget, it is moving along and pilots need to get familiar with it.
Seven new ADS-B (Automatic Dependence Surveillance– Broadcast) radio stations have become operational since October, bringing the total to 438.
ADS-B is a critical component of NextGen. It provides position coverage to aircraft with the proper equipment and to air traffic control by satellite. Equipped aircraft make it possible to have more aircraft operating in more congested areas.
With ADS-B, pilots and controllers can see radar-like displays of traffic that do not degrade with distance or terrain. It reduces the amount of airspace set aside for each aircraft, permitting more aircraft to be handled.
After years of research and development and use by general aviation pilots in Alaska and air carriers in the Ohio Valley, led by UPS, ADS-B was ready for implementation throughout the entire system, according to FAA officials, who note on the FAA website: “On Sept. 9, 2005, the FAA officially committed to moving toward establishing ADS-B as the basis for air traffic control in the future.”
Next area for activation was over the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of flights now move to and from hundreds of gulf oil platform stations in clear and IFR conditions.
In early December 2012, the FAA teamed with the Colorado Department of Transportation to activate NextGen technology at Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ) in western Colorado. That technology is Wide Area Multilateration (WAM). It allows controllers to track aircraft in mountainous areas that are outside radar coverage, using a network of small sensors deployed in remote areas. Transponders receive and send back signals to these sensors.
Meanwhile, on the morning of Dec. 10, 2012, the System Wide Information Management (SWIM) Special Use Airspace (SUA) capability went operational, providing users with three new services: Static Definitions, Dynamic Definitions, and Special Activity Airspace (SAA) Editor.
The Static Definition Service provides information on the shape and legal definition of an airspace, and is installed on the NAS Resource system. The Dynamic Definitions Service provides information on the scheduling of airspace, and is installed in the SUA Management Systems (SAMS). The SAA Editor is a new tool used to create and modify SAAs.
Just a few days earlier, on Dec. 7, the System Wide Information Management (SWIM) Predeparture Reroute (PDRR) demonstrated Initial Operating Capability (IOC) at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center. This enables traffic management coordinators to use a single system to coordinate and send reroute information to towers handling departure flights, FAA officials explained. SWIM will enable towers to identify any flight affected by weather or other route obstructions.
Another piece of the puzzle activated in December allows pilots flying all types of aircraft to be able to reach more runways in low visibility conditions. The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) now exceeds 3,000 Localizer Performance with Vertical guidance (LPV) approaches. At more than half of these — 1,500 — this vertical guidance system can direct aircraft to as low as 200 feet above the runway. With WAAS, pilots can use GPS from takeoff through the equivalent of a category 1 instrument landing. More than 60,000 aircraft are now certified to use WAAS.
Because of criticism by various groups involved in the NextGen program that there was not a sharp focus on where NextGen was impacting the airspace system, the FAA is now reporting a wide range of data for specific performances in specific locations.
The FAA has an Office of NextGen with an assistant administrator in charge, a position currently vacant because of the retirement of Victoria Cox.
As NextGen moves toward full implementation, the new capabilities and benefits will grow across the country — at major airports and general aviation airports that serve not only personal and business flights, but are important for safety flights, like law enforcement, rescue, and medical aircraft.
While NextGen seems to be moving along well now, government finances will dictate if that continues. Negotiations about the nation’s debt ceiling and sequestration are coming up in a matter of weeks, which will dictate the speed of NextGen advances.