Review gives FAA plan its stamp of approval

Commission backs full funding for modernization

Despite budget constraints, a presidential commission will recommend full funding for the Federal Aviation Administration's 10-year modernization master plan, officials said.

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry will present its findings Nov. 18, but insiders revealed some details at the Air Traffic Control Association Inc.'s annual convention in Washington, D.C., last week.

The FAA's Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), a mix of information technology and other initiatives, will get the thumbs up, according to Bob Walker, chairman of the commission.

The plan, released in June 2001, spells out a series of steps to expand the capacity of the airspace system to meet passenger needs by 2010. Although demand dropped after last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, industry insiders maintain that the numbers will bounce back.

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $14 billion for the FAA — a 1.6 percent decrease — for fiscal 2003. Of that, $30 million — about a $2 million increase — is earmarked for the agency's information services.

With the modernization plan seemingly on solid ground, the FAA has begun looking further into the future. The question remains, "What will happen beyond the OEP?" said Jeffrey Shane, associate deputy secretary of the Transportation Department.

"We think that you have to have an extremely robust system for the future so you have a lot of options," said Walker, chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associat

In its report, the commission will also stress the importance of interagency cooperation, particularly among the Defense Department, NASA and the FAA, he said.

"We have got to begin a process of horizontal decision-making to ensure when we're making investments that they're broadly applied," he said.

Beyond national collaboration, the FAA must take a global view, possibly by creating international standards, officials said.

"It's headed down a road to incompatibility," said Neil Planzer, executive director of the DOD Policy Board on Federal Aviation. "Everybody's saying we've got to do it, but nobody's taking a leadership role."

The FAA has interoperability issues within the United States, particularly when it comes to getting aircraft equipped to use new tools.

Marrying the technology with policy is the key, according to Charles Keegan, the agency's associate administrator for research and acquisitions. "I think it's an area that's relatively new for us."

The real challenge facing the agency "is that we don't understand where aviation fits into the national culture," he added. "An opportunity exists today to redefine and re-establish" that position.

His peers in the aviation community agreed. "If you had the policy changes that would truly allow the FAA to move along a preplanned [route], technology could come in to meet the requirements," said Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management. "The real issue is a national imperative. The value of aviation to the economic model just can't be overstated."

A recent analysis by Global Insight Inc. (formerly DRI-WEFA Inc.) and the Campbell-Hill Aviation Group Inc. found that congestion and delays in commercial air transport in 2000 cost the United States $9.4 billion in expenses, including extra fuel consumption and overtime pay.

"The National Economic Impact of Civil Aviation: 2000-12," released in July, projected that the number of delays in 2012 will be higher than in 2000 — even if all of the OEP infrastructure projects are finished on time.

"I'm not sure we've done all the homework on capacity issues," Antonucci said. "There's a start. It's called the OEP."High-tech navigation moves forward

Federal Aviation Administration officials announced last month that they will develop and implement a plan within the next year to establish public use of Required Navigation Performance (RNP), a major part of the agency's strategy to modernize the nation's airspace system.

RNP enables aircraft to employ advanced technologies for precision guidance in the en route areas (high-altitude) and terminal areas (within about a 40-mile radius of the airport), according to the FAA.

However, one of the first RNP attempts in Las Vegas hit some roadblocks, prompting air traffic controllers to file more than 70 airspace violations, according to Langhorne Bond, a former FAA administrator.

Aviation officials attributed the errors to communications and equipment challenges.

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