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Originally published on …

ATA talks to … FAA senior vice-president Victoria Cox

NextGen ATC: The future is a.) now b.) tomorrow c.) 2025 d.) never e.) all of the above


It is, to begin with, something of a misnomer.

The implication is futuristic, something out there somewhere, beyond a distant not-quite-visible horizon. Maybe not exactly as far removed from this day's  ToDo List as figuring out how to  refreezing the polar ice caps after their globally warmed meltdown, but still pretty well down the road.

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. For significant elements of the NextGen Air Traffic Control System's technology, the future is now -- RNAV procedures, for example, are already being used at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Washington Dulles and ADS-B is out-of-the-incubator and actively deployed in parts of Florida, the Gulf  Coast and Alaska and will be rolling out to other air corridors by year's end.

Other key components of the system will -- barring a total (and totally unlikely) freeze in FAA and airport infrastructure spending -- be coming online in selected markets within 36 months.     

Mandatory commercial carrier -- and in some cases general aviation -- installation of onboard NextGen digital communications and surveillance equipment is a mere six years to 11 years away and the entire system, or at least those parts of it which will survive an unending series of budget reviews, political compromises and public debates, is expected to be fully deployed and functional in 2025.

In this series we will attempt to give an overview of the three key considerations -- technology, politics & economics -- defining and shaping the air traffic control system that will eventually guide <i>our</i> generation -- not just our children's -- across America's skyways.

Preparing these articles would not have been possible without the generous cooperation of Victoria Cox, FAA senior vice-president for NextGen & Operations;  Steve Bradford, the FAA's chief scientist for NextGen; Tammy L. Jones, FAA Office of Communications spokesperson; and the insights provided by numerous aviation industry writers and analysts who have traversed various parts of this route ahead of us.

We would like to thank everyone who's brains we picked and assure both them and you, the reader, that all opinions, interpretations, predictions and conclusions expressed here are solely those of the editors of <a href=""></a> and <a href=""></a> unless they are expressed within quotation marks and attributed to a specific individual.

<b>TECHNOLOGY, PART ONE: Hello Sputnik So Long "Skin Paint"</b>

For the past 60 or so years, ever since basic radar location-awareness technology was more or less perfected during World War II, the lynchpin of the world's commercial air navigation system has been ground-based air traffic control radar beacon stations which transmit radio waves, calculate the time it takes them bounce off an aircraft and return, and extrapolate the distance and location of the aircraft based on changes in timing and signal strength.

To say that this so-called "skin-paint," aka primary surveillance radar technology , has been upgraded, enhanced and expanded during the past four or five decades is a Guinness Book of World Records- class understatement. As just one example, the secondary surveillance radar installed in control towers gets beneath the aircraft's "skin" to communicate with transponders that give air traffic controllers real-time information on such things as aircraft identification, flying attitude, speed and direction.

Numerous other high-tech advancements -- such as <a href="">Precision Runway Monitoring systems</a> -- have greatly expanded the capacity of the current airlanes by trimming the distance and/or time separations required for safe landings and takeoffs.

In sum, ground-based radar and the incredibly complex and flexible ATC infrastructure erected on top of it over the past half century has produced a state-of-the-late -20th-Century art system that is not just safe, but, in the words of FAA Senior Vice-President for NextGen & Operations Victoria Cox, "phenomenally safe."

Statistics bear Ms. Cox out. Today's U.S. air traffic control system is the global gold standard, safer than  that of any other country and safer by far -- despite vastly increased traffic --  than it has been at any other point in our history.

How much safer? FAA safety charts going back 20 years, show 2007 (the most recent year for which a full report has been issued) as the air safety leader in every meaningful category -- Accidents Per 100,000 Flight Hours, Accidents Per 1,000,000 Miles Flown, and Accidents Per 100,000 Departures.

So if the argument used to justify NextGen's almost incalculable public and private cost is, to quote Ms. Cox, "not a safety issue" what <i>is</i> it?  

According to FAA planners, many airline executives, a vocal cadre of high-profile politicians and a well financed brigade of aerospace industry lobbyists , the issue is system capacity. In their view, the skies above America are not only less than friendly, they're essentially gridlocked. Severely clogged arteries responsible for billions of dollars in flight delays and totally inadequate to handle what they believe will be skyrocketing increases in air travel.

Putting aside contrary claims that growth in real-world demand for air travel  over the next 15 years will be a fraction of those forecast by NextGen proponents until our future  installment on politics, we will -- for the purposes of this article -- assume the aerial highways and byways are bumper to bumper with everything from Airbuses to air taxis and focus on some of  NextGen's key technological solutions for the problem.

In general, according to FAA planning documents, NextGen "leverages aviation's move toward more precise navigation, more accurate and predictable flight paths (and) reduced runway to runway separation standards."

This, FAA planners continue, will enable "greater flexibility in airport design and enhancement, allowing airports to build runways closer together (and) provide new opportunities for expansion and development within existing airport footprints, which otherwise may be constrained by geography and costly land acquisition."

As with many lofty and ambitious dreams, making NextGen "come true" is very much a matter of wishing on the stars,  though in this case the stars involved are manmade rather than celestial.

To put it simply, NextGen will clip the apron strings binding aircraft tracking and communications to the earth and transfer those functions to Defense Department GPS satellites and commercial communications satellites. (No dedicated, single-purpose NextGEN satellites are planned.)

According to the FAA, the switch from ground-based radar location to satellite surveillance and voice-based to digital communications will  provide full "situational awareness of all air vehicles to both controllers and pilots."

Once this migration from earthbound to sky-high technology is fully implemented,  "routing will be more of a collaborative affair between pilots and ground controllers than it is now," Victoria Cox says. "(Today) there are standard established routes and altitudes available to pilots and they are assigned by air traffic controllers with the emphasis on  control of the airspace.

"Under the NextGen system there is going to be much more flexibility for the operators to select the routes and altitudes they want to fly. Automation will be available to compute,  track and develop the best traffic flows to try and accommodate the operators while eliminating any essential conflicts and ensuring maintenance of our rigorous safety standards."

If NextGen's goals are simple to describe, the technology being tested, deployed and invented to achieve them is incredibly complex.  Among other things, the transition involves a near-100 percent change  of air traffic control system equipment and operating procedures, retrofitting existing commercial airliners with new, high-priced electronic systems, significant retraining of  commercial flight crews and adoption of a limited subset of NextGen protocols covering such things as situation awareness and data descriptors by many general aviation pilots.

Major ingredients in NextGen's alphabet soup bowl of technology include:

<b>ADS-B:</b> Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast is, the FAA says, the "backbone" of the NextGen system. It is also one of the most fully developed modules, having gone "live" in much of South Florida in late 2008 after extensive testing in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, where ground-based radar coverage is non-existent or sparse, and Louisville, Kentucky, where UPS has equipped 107 of its aircraft with ADS-B transceivers.

Operating with ADS-B, an aircraft obtains its situational awareness information -- speed, altitude, location, etc. -- directly from GPS satellites and rebroadcasts it in real time -- along with other information such as its flight number -- to ADS-B equipped ATC centers and other ADS-B-capable aircraft.

Simultaneously with these continuous data exchanges, Control Center ADS-B computers can transmit NEXRAD radar weather images, terminal weather forecasts, current weather reports (METARS), and air traffic awareness information (including the location of non ADS-B-equipped planes) to the aircraft.

"One of things we're looking at with ADS-B  is better long-range predictive capability for avoiding weather by flying around it," Victoria Cox says.  

Noting that ADS-B enables pilots, for the first time,  to make decisions based on the same weather data and graphic displays available to ground controllers, Cox says that a joint FAA/National Weather Service project to develop "a single authoritative source for weather" will allow even better integration of weather information into "decision support tools" that will enable "traffic to flow more efficiently."

ADS-B, she says, will enable pilots and controllers to make decisions based on computer algorithms "that take into account traffic on routes as well as weather."

Beneficial results of ADS-B, according to the FAA, will include decreases in aircraft separation requirements, improved accuracy in arrival and departure scheduling and decreased ATC operating costs.

According to NextGen Chief Scientist Steve Bradford, ADS-B will be deployed in some "key"  East Coast cities in the near term  followed by rollouts "around the perimeter of the U.S. catching major metro areas first." Remote and less populated areas will get ADS-B last, with full national implementation expected in 2013.

Under current regulations, all aircraft flying in controlled airspace must be ADS-B capable by 2020, though there is ongoing discussion about lowering the complexity and cost of hardware required in aircraft flying at under 25,000 feet.

<b>RNAV: </b> Only in America could official documents (i.e. the Federal Register and various specific FAA rules) include lengthy debate over the meaning of an acronym and whether it is applicable to a particular technology.

Notwithstanding, nobody seems to be exactly sure what RNAV really stands for and several airlines did, in fact, <i>officially</i> object when the FAA selected it as the "call name" for the NextGen Area Navigation system. Ultimately, the FAA, as it usually does,  prevailed, stating that:

<i> ‘‘RNAV’’ is a long-standing acronym that the industry and the FAA have used to refer to area navigation for several decades ... therefore, the FAA is adopting the acronym ‘‘RNAV’’ for ‘‘area navigation.</i>

Whatever the reasoning (if any) behind its "adopted" name, area navigation is intended to provide a more precise way to route an aircraft from airport to airport by charting the straightest possible line between Point A and Point B.

Existing RNAV sensors and computers, currently installed in about two-thirds of America's commercial airliners, determine an aircraft's position  and bearing based on information received from radar system sensors and use that information to send course correction data to the pilot or, in some cases, the autopilot.

"Precision area navigation allows aircraft to be safely separated in a smaller airspace," Victoria Cox says. "With it we hope to have multiple (takeoff) paths from closely separated fields like McCarran International and the Executive Airport in Las Vegas so flight departures don't have to be staggered to accommodate the aircraft mixing together .

"We're doing some of that right now in New York where we've de-conficted Kennedy and LaGuardia. Under the old system departing flights from both fields had to go over the same spot so we had to manage the flow from the two runways together. Now, with RNAV, we can separate the flows into individual paths."

A more advanced RNAV system based on GPS tracking and integrated with mandatory Required Navigation Performance (RNP) onboard performance monitoring and alert technology is a keystone of the FAA's NextGen's PBN strategy. It is expected to be fully deployed by 2020.

<b>PBN</b>  Performance-Based Navigation, which comes as close as anything does to being a descriptive for the entire NextGen initiative, is less a technology than a set of quidelines.

In official FAAspeak, PBN is "a framework for defining navigation performance requirements (embodied in 'navigation specifications') that can be applied to an air traffic route, instrument procedure, or defined airspace ... PBN includes both Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) specifications and provides a basis for the design and implementation of automated flight paths as well as for airspace design and obstacle clearance."

So far, so good. The FAA definition of PBN goes on, however, to state that "once the required performance level is established, the aircraft’s own capability determines whether it can safely achieve the specified performance and qualify for the operation."

It is this, the idea that an "aircraft" and by extension its crew should determine their own capability to "safely achieve specified performance and qualify for the operation" that seems to lie near -- if not exactly at -- the heart of NextGen's conversion of the current "dictatorial" system of air traffic control to one in which controllers and pilots "negotiate" the details of each flight.

(Editor's Note: The next installment in this series will discuss this philosophical sea change in more detail.)

<b>SWIM:</b> According to the FAA,  System Wide Information Management is a "transformational ” program for (the) Next Generation Air Transportation System.

Translated, that means SWIM is intended to untangle the rat's nest of "hard-wired infrastructure and systems" developed piecemeal over 80 years "to support yesterday’s decision-making needs" and replace it with "commercial software for the core services needed to publish data to the network, retrieve it, secure its integrity, and control its access."

That statement -- with its implication that such commercial software exists or could be easily written -- may make implementing SWIM sound simple. Like trying to reprogram mainframe computers using extinct operating systems to accept 21st Century dates, however, integrating the air traffic system's myriad of data acquisition systems and attempting to stuff the massive amount of data they collect into a common pipeline is actually a pretty daunting and expensive task.

A task which the FAA says is "vital to the achievement of National, DOT, and FAA strategic plans and the future evolution of air transportation management in the nation." As of early 2009, the FAA has funding for beginning work on Phase One of the SWIM program.

<b>ASDE-X:</b> Of all NextGen's technologies, Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X, which is already online in a handful of major airports, is the one most likely to be noticed and appreciated by frustrated frequent fliers.

Using information gathered from whatever surface and air monitoring sources are available at the particular installation (surface movement radar, ADS-B, terminal radars, Airport Target Identification System data, etc.),  ASDE-X gives controllers a detailed graphic display of aircraft and vehicles on the airport's surface or in the air within five miles of the airport.

Overlaid on a computer map of the field's runways, taxiways and approach lanes, that display has been primarily used to ensure safe taxi and other off-runway airport operations during poor visibility periods. Under NextGen, however, enhanced ASDE-X technology is expected to become a primary tool in reducing ground delays caused by, to put it in the King's English, trying to keep large, heavy, clumsy (while on terra firma) objects like 747s out of each other's way.

"Control of movements on the ground is one of the areas where we stand to gain the most immediate benefits in terms of efficiency, fuel savings, and delay reduction" from Next Gen, Victoria Cox says.   "With ASDE-X the goal is to have surface management systems that will track and share information about surface traffic not just in movement areas but all the way to the gate."

Noting that demonstration programs of expanded ASDE-X service are underway at several East Coast airports in conjunction with Delta Airlines, Cox observed that "you can wring a lot of efficiency out of knowing where all the traffic on an airport surface is. The ultimate goal is to be able to manage that traffic the most efficient manner."

Though neither she nor anyone else at the FAA has ever said it, efficiently managing "things" like Congress, the TSA, airline and general aviation lobbyists, airport management and funding agencies, aircraft, avionics and other technology vendors, and the demands of an increasingly restive traveling public is one of the greatest challenges facing NextGen planners.

With technology, as all us who can still remember VCRs have learned, virtually anything is possible -- even, presumably, a new improved air traffic control system.

Politics and money, however, particularly when used in the same sentence, have a long history of rendering the possible impossible.

On paper and in the development labs, NextGen, which is currently being funded one fiscal year at a time just like, dare we say it, such other less-than-blessed federal programs as Amtrak, is not very far away. Many of the technological questions, at least as far as the FAA is concerned, have been answered.

Other questions, such as who's going to pay for all this and whether we really need Full Monty NextGen deployment in the face of a recession/depression that may reduce air travel growth rates -- particularly business travel growth rates -- for a decade or more, are still wide open.

We'll take a look at them in our upcoming articles.