NextGen air traffic control plan moves ahead despite uncertain funding forecast

FAA's collaborative program enjoying momentum, but technical and budget hurdles loom

The Federal Aviation Administration is riding a wave of momentum toward meeting its midterm vision for the NextGen National AirSpace System, but it also faces many technical, programmatic and organizational challenges, according to FAA’s recently released 2011 NextGen Implementation Plan.

Chief among the hurdles are uncertainties over funding and the contributions of other agencies in what is a collaborative project.

Funding concerns linger for the program, especially amid talk of spending cuts on Capitol Hill and the release of a Transportation Department inspector general's report last April that questioned the FAA’s ability to deliver on the project.

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FAA officials noted in the 2011 NextGen Implementation Plan that the agency plans to invest heavily on NextGen development but said the initiative is a collaborative task that relies on contributions from other parties.

“There remains some ambiguity regarding future budgets, particularly in this time of economic uncertainty,” the FAA plan states.

“Just as we rely on funding for our own work as a Transportation Department agency, we must synchronize our investments with those of other government agencies, airport authorities and the private-sector aviation community,” the plan states. “If one of the major contributors falters in its commitment to NextGen, the effectiveness of the others’ commitments could be at risk.”

The Obama administration requested in the 2012 fiscal budget that the FAA receive $18.7 billion to maintain the country’s Air Traffic Control System The NextGen initiative would receive $1.2 billion of that request, an increase of $70 million from fiscal 2010, the last enacted appropriated level.

Planning, as reflected in the implementation plan, allows FAA to remain on track to deliver the core framework for NextGen implementation, particularly the capabilities requested by the aviation community. Those core elements include improving surface operations, freeing up metroplex congestion and implementing Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast ground infrastructure, the FAA plan states.

The transformation of the FAA's National Airspace System represents an evolution from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system, which is expected to be completed by 2025. FAA’s midterm plan focuses on improvements between now and 2018.

FAA officials say NextGen is vital to meeting future demand, avoiding gridlock in the sky, save fuel and reduce noise and pollution.

FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said in a letter introducing the 2011 plan that “NextGen is enjoying forward momentum right now.” The FAA and the entire aviation community needs to continue to work together to sustain progress, he added.

This means FAA has to adopt a new approach to the way the agency does business in the NAS, he said. Babbitt launched Destination 2025, a vision for both transforming the country’s national aviation system and the agency responsible for making it happen.

“We’re taking a hard look at how we do things and making changes to ensure the FAA can meet the demands of a new century of aviation,” Babbitt wrote.

Progress in 2010 included the integration of FAA’s new satellite-based aircraft tracking system, ADS-B, into all four air traffic control automation platforms at key sites across the country, Babbitt said. This has paved the way to begin integrating ADS-B into FAA air traffic control facilities nationwide.

Other developments that will unfold over the next few years include improvements in data communications and data sharing.

Improved data communications will enable digital air traffic control (ATC) information to be exchanged between controllers and pilots and then auto-loaded directly into aircraft flight management systems. This will decrease the reliance on voice communication and reduce errors, the report states.

"A final investment decision slated for 2012 will enable us to contract with a vendor to provide the VHF radio network that will carry data communication messages," the report states.

Work on the System Wide Information Management network structure continues. SWIM, based on a service-oriented architecture, will allow real-time data exchange and sharing among users of the NAS. In October 2010, the Corridor Integrated Weather System became the first ATC system to share information via the SWIM interface. Earlier this year, SWIM achieved the same milestone with the Integrated Terminal Weather System.

By 2015, all seven ATC systems targeted for SWIM’s initial implementation phase are expected to be SWIM-compliant. Throughout 2011, the SWIM program will continue the development work necessary to gather and share airport surface data via SWIM surface information in 2012.

By 2013, the SWIM program expects to have standardized its core information delivery service, so that custom interfaces will no longer have to be built for programs seeking SWIM compliance, the FAA plan states.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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