Air traffic control has been ground based since its beginning, but under the FAA’s Next Generation (NextGen) program it will be out of this world — and it may cause general aviation some out-of-this-world problems.
Air traffic control began in 1929 at St. Louis Lambert Field when Archie League was hired to direct the movements of the growing number of flights at the field. His control base was a wheelbarrow with a beach umbrella mounted on it to protect him from the summer heat, while he used flags to signal pilots. League went on to develop today’s ATC and was active at FAA headquarters well into the 1960s.
Although there have been many developments in technology from League’s flags to radio and radar used by today’s controllers, air traffic control has remained a ground-based system with person-to-person voice directions.
NextGen is expected to change this.
Satellites will transmit information to aircraft, while aircraft will transmit information to satellites. Equipment in the aircraft will keep pilots informed about their own positions, as well as those of other pilots, to avoid collisions.
GPS will be used for direct routes instead of the zigzag airways used today between Very High Frequency Omni Range sites (VORs). New approach patterns will give aircraft more direct paths and known descent patterns to airports.
Air traffic controllers will still have important roles in monitoring movements, directing arrivals and departures, and other pertinent actions, but more responsibility and more information will be in the cockpit. The concept is to allow controllers to manage air traffic rather than to control it.
This simplified explanation makes NextGen seem like an excellent way to increase aircraft movements, but it is far more complicated. Some at the FAA say changing the air traffic control system is like trying to replace a flat tire on a car that is still speeding down the road.
The FAA originally called the period until 2018 the “mid-term” of NextGen with completion of the changeover to come by 2025. At a recent Congressional hearing, however, airlines urged faster completion, calling for NextGen to be fully operational in three to five years. A spokesman for the Air Transport Association — the airlines’ lobbying group — said the shorter time will reduce the airlines’ expenses for fuel and cut the numbers of flight delays.
Such speed could be unrealistic as the FAA has not yet set standards for all the equipment needed in aircraft, much less provided schedules for manufacturers to design, test, and build the required systems and see if they work. Some avionics will build on products that are now available, while others will be completely new.
A centerpiece of NextGen is Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B). With this satellite program, ADS-B In receives data and ADS-B Out transmits the positions of aircraft. However, only airplanes equipped with the proper avionics will be seen by the satellites and other pilots.
The FAA has started deploying ADS-B, with the first installation in Alaska, followed by South Florida. Equipped aircraft flying in South Florida airspace can now receive aircraft and weather information on their cockpit displays. Broadcast of information has been limited to aircraft.
Next up is Louisville, Ky., with an evolution of the ADS-B system. Here, controllers will see little difference from what they have in the past with radar but ADS-B will be used for the first time to provide standard three-mile separation of aircraft.
By this fall ADS-B is expected over the Gulf of Mexico, where it is expected to be helpful to helicopter operators serving oil rigs.
To provide the improvements NextGen promises, all aircraft flying in these areas must be properly equipped. FAA officials say both the government and the private sector must spend millions to achieve this. Cost for general aviation aircraft is projected to be between $7,000 and $30,000 per aircraft, depending on the level of participation and service wanted. Since the FAA has not yet set standards for the required avionics, manufacturers cannot reliably say how much they will sell for.
To make NextGen successful, FAA will change the basic rule of first-come, first-served. Under NextGen, it will be best-equipped, best-served. The less equipment an aircraft has to work with NextGen, the further down it will be in handling by ATC.
As NextGen is implemented, radar will have to be phased out, as the cost of maintaining two systems will be prohibitive. Unlike today when a non-transponder aircraft can still be picked up by radar for controller positioning, an aircraft without NextGen equipment will not be seen by controllers.
While stating that aircraft fully equipped for operating in NextGen will get preferential treatment, the FAA declares lesser-equipped aircraft will still be accommodated in the national airspace system. A concern for general aviation is that aircraft without full equipment could be relegated to certain airspace and either restricted from busy terminal areas or denied entrance all together.
One reason the airline industry is eager to get NextGen operating is because of the massive delays their carriers suffer at major terminals. While NextGen will give more direct descent routing and closer spacing, this is just part of the equation. More runways and more airports must be available to accept increased traffic.
Today, about 70% of all delays are weather related. ADS-B may help to some degree, but weather will still be a factor in flight operations. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has said “while NextGen will offer some efficiencies, it will not solve congestion.” He added that while NextGen is expected to increase capacity by 20%, airline traffic is excepted to increase 40% to 50% over the next 10 years.
This startling observation, coupled with concern over equipment availability and costs — and the FAA’s plan to eliminate first-come, first-served in air traffic control — raises many questions to which general aviation interests will be seeking answers in the coming months and years.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.