For all the talk about NextGen — the Next Generation Air Transportation System — there are many pilots who still think it’s somewhere far off in the future. Think again.
“People are starting to see that we’re way beyond the drawing board or the science experiment stage,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Many components of NextGen are in place, and NextGen is showing results today.”
During a sit-down interview at last summer’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Huerta noted that the FAA made a commitment to the aviation industry that the NextGen ground infrastructure would be in place by 2013 “and that’s essentially completed,” with full capability expected by 2015.
There are pilots already realizing the benefits of NextGen — and not just airline pilots. While airlines were among the first to equip their aircraft to take advantage of the switch from ground-based radar navigation to satellite-based navigation, the general aviation industry has shown quite an enthusiasm for the new technologies, according to Huerta.
“We have a lot of early adopters in the general aviation community,” he said, noting the FAA is learning a lot from the general aviation community in regards to NextGen. “There is a willingness to experiment and try different things,” he noted. “That’s one of the things that is important for us to harness.”
That’s because NextGen involves the complete transformation of the air traffic control system. FAA officials, realizing that the current system couldn’t accommodate the level of growth expected in aviation, began the search for new capabilities and technologies designed to not only keep the skies safe, but running efficiently. For example, the cornerstone of NextGen — Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) — improves situational awareness for both pilots and air traffic controllers, which allows more airplanes to be in the sky at the same time.
Airplanes with ADS-B equipment send signals to ATC and other equipped airplanes, which makes everyone safer, FAA officials note. That’s why the agency is requiring all aircraft that fly in the nation’s busiest airspace to have ADS-B Out equipment by 2020.
While many GA pilots wince at the expected costs of equipping their airplanes, Huerta said it’s “very important” that they do.
“For starters, it’s good for them,” he said. “NextGen is a quantum leap from the standpoint of situational awareness. It gives you a much clearer view of everything that’s happening in the National Airspace System. It also gives you the equivalent of perfect weather conditions.”
According to Huerta, an FAA analysis found that aircraft equipped with ADS-B were involved in 47% fewer accidents,
“That’s huge,” he said.
Airplanes equipped for both ADS-B Out and ADS-B In will be able to receive continually updated traffic, as well as weather, all without paying a subscription. Many in GA point out that is one of the enticements the FAA is offering to get GA pilots to reach into their wallets. In a recent speech, Huerta noted: “It may not take long for the cost of new equipment to pay for itself in savings from monthly or quarterly subscriptions.”
“One of the things we go back to is when everyone was wondering if they wanted to invest in an HD TV,” Huerta said at Oshkosh. “Once they did, they said ‘wow, this is such a great thing.’”
He believes GA pilots will say the same thing about NextGen.
“There are so many important safety benefits for pilots,” he said. “If you are flying in controlled airspace, you will get a much better picture of what’s happening around you.”
Huerta noted that the FAA has been doing “an awful lot” to accelerate the benefits associated with NextGen. (See Capital Comments on Page 9 for a recap of recent developments). Besides building up the infrastructure, the FAA is giving top priority to approving products that support NextGen — and there are more and more of these seemingly every day.
When talking to pilots, Huerta works to dispel concerns about the new technologies. Speaking at last year’s SUN ’n FUN, he said: “Raise your hand if you have ever flown a WAAS-enabled RNAV GPS approach, such as an LPV approach. If you raised your hand, then you’re already benefiting from the satellite-based navigation elements of NextGen. And I bet you’d agree that the investment you made to equip your aircraft paid off the first time it got you into the airport where you wanted to land.”
He continued: “Another reason to put ADS-B on your upgrade list: A lot of the efficiencies we expect depend on a system where most aircraft are using them. The best equipped aircraft will be best placed to benefit.”
Best Equipped/Best Served is a fundamental shift in how air traffic controllers will handle traffic. Currently, it’s on a first come/first served basis. One of the enticements to get airplane owners and airlines to equip for NextGen is Best Equipped/Best Served, which would give priority to NextGen-equipped aircraft.
Nav Canada is already giving priority to ADS-B equipped aircraft, while the FAA is still in the “modeling” stages of the new policy.
At a public hearing on the policy last April, officials with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) argued that “as designed, the proposals would adversely penalize a very large percentage of business aircraft operating in the U.S. by establishing exclusionary technological requirements.”
Another piece of the NextGen puzzle is the redesign of airspace around major metropolitan areas, dubbed Metroplexes.
The Metroplex initiative, formally called “The Optimization of Procedures in the Metroplex,” is designed to create more direct, fuel-efficient routes and improve how we use congested airspace. For this initiative, the FAA is focusing locally, bringing together pilots, airline officials, air traffic controllers and others in the aviation industry to redesign the airspace in 21 Metroplex areas.
This is beneficial, according to Huerta, because everyone is in the same room as the work is being done. “If an airline wants a particular approach, a controller can point out that it goes over a GA airport, and it can be easily moved,” he said.
To help the public keep track of all the changes associated with NextGen, the FAA has added NextGen Performance Snapshots to its website. According to FAA officials, the performance snapshots provide a “rear-view mirror” look at performance where NextGen capabilities have been implemented. It also provides descriptions of some “major operational successes.”
“The performance snapshots will help both government and industry assess the effects of NextGen implementation as we perform our individual, yet collective, roles,” Huerta said in a speech to the NextGen Advisory Council.
The entire aviation community — including general aviation — needs to look at NextGen “not as a challenge — and it is a challenge — but as a wonderful opportunity,” Huerta said.
“The decisions we make in aviation now set the stage for what aviation will be like for the next 25 years,” he concluded. “That makes it a very exciting time to be in aviation.”
For more information: FAA.gov/NextGen