WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA reported earlier this month that it had completed nationwide equipment installation for the NextGen aircraft tracking system.
The announcement — like others in the past and probably those in the future — raises more questions than it provides answers, particularly for general aviation.
The nationwide installation of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) network supports a satellite-based surveillance system that tracks aircraft with the help of GPS. This gives what the FAA says is a more accurate aircraft location than the current radar system.
Completing this installation is but one step in a long march.
Of the 230 air traffic facilities across the nation, 100 are currently using the system. All facilities are expected to be operational by 2019. At that time, all aircraft operating in controlled airspace will be required to be equipped with ADS-B to broadcast their locations by Jan. 1, 2020.
And therein lie the questions. As a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association says, “the devil is in the details.”
Several reports show the program is already behind schedule and over budget. Will the government make up for lost time while at the same time reduce spending?
Pilots have been reluctant to invest in equipment for their aircraft for several reasons. First, there is no certainty that equipment purchased now will be compatible with the system when it is completed. Second, the cost of the equipment is an uncertainty. The equipment now costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per aircraft. Third, will technology improve so the cost might be reduced? Or will a greater volume of sales help bring the cost down for individual aircraft owners? Fourth, will there be battery-operated equipment so aircraft with no electrical system may operate in controlled airspace?
According to the FAA, one advantage to NextGen is it will permit more direct flights from point-to-point, reducing travel time. This leads to more questions: Does this mean more airspace will be controlled, reducing where and how non-equipped aircraft may operate? If not, will there be less airspace where these aircraft may operate in day VFR conditions, or will it mean aircraft must be so-equipped in order to operate in any airspace?
Another question is what happens in the event of a system failure? Anyone who owns or works on a computer knows they have a tendency to malfunction. What is the FAA’s back-up plan when the system inevitably fails?
What’s more, these are just some of the questions needing answers.
Officials from general aviation’s alphabet groups are talking with FAA officials about these concerns — and others.
The organizations are working together, but have their differences. That’s because each group is out to protect its own members’ interests. For example, some business aviation can accept operations closer to that of the airlines. Other GA groups represent pilots who fly for recreation and fear losing access to the skies. Meanwhile, the airlines want more airspace to call their own.
As the EAA’s Dick Knapinski says, “let’s take the time to do it right and not have to come back and do it over. Our main concern is to see that everybody flies.”