Aerospace & defenseMay 29, 2018

The Art of the Dodge

No one’s ever likely to confuse the federal government for a paragon…
Avatar Tony Velocci

No one’s ever likely to confuse the federal government for a paragon of efficiency. Take its decades-long effort, for example, to bring air traffic control into the 21st century.

As far back as 1995, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) felt certain the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) could be implemented within 10 to 20 years if there were sufficient collaboration between the FAA and the airline industry and Congress provided the funding, resulting in a profusion of Goldilocks benefits: reduced congestion in the skyways, fuel savings for aircraft operators, lower emissions due to more direct routes and approaches, standardized access to weather information, better communications across the airspace system, and a better travel experience for passengers and operators.

Officially, NextGen— which is composed of seven core programs and multiple systems—finally got off the ground in December 2003, when Congress the following year directed the Department of Transportation to begin transitioning to the modern system. It’s been a work in progress ever since.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been major progress. In fact, the infrastructure underpinning NextGen is nearly complete. In August 2017 the Government Accountability Office reported “current segments of NextGen programs are generally on schedule.”

For example, deployment of the ground infrastructure for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) is complete, and Data Communications (DataComm), which allows pilots and controllers to communicate by text messages, is operational at 57 airport towers and is being deployed to en route centers. (To FAA’s credit, DataComm is about two years ahead of schedule.) Moreover, System-wide Information Management (SWIM) used to make flight, traffic flow, weather and other information available to subscribers is deployed and adding services. Now, for the most part, it’s a matter of building the system out, which could take another three to five years. Maybe.

Could the pace of implementation have been faster? Probably. The FAA has had to contend with frequent management turnover, the slow decision-making process typical of huge bureaucracies, and what may have been an unrealistic timetable 15 years ago. Then there’s the granddaddy of all long-term mega program headaches involving government participation, especially on matters pertaining to aviation and aerospace: a largely dysfunctional Congress and its contemptible track record of handicapping anything worth accomplishing with funding uncertainties.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of the implementation of NextGen is the airline industry, arguably the chief beneficiary. How ironic—and hypocritical. Commercial air transportation operators have known for years that the success of NextGen would depend as much on them as it would on the FAA and its contractors.

For the system to work as intended and make the airspace system and airports much more efficient, all aircraft flying into designated controlled airspace will need to be equipped with the necessary avionics. This includes, at a minimum, ADS-B “Out” position reporting technology, which is more accurate and more reliable than the radars it will replace. ADS-B will broadcast aircraft information such as speed, location and route to air traffic controllers and other participating aircraft through the use of satellite radio signals and ground stations. In other words, NextGen, by definition, is an essential partnership between government and industry.

As it turns out, it is highly unlikely that all of the aircraft in which the avionics ought to be installed by the FAA’s deadline of Jan. 1, 2020 will be ready. By the way, these are the same companies who, until relatively recently and with very few exceptions, couldn’t manage themselves out of a paper bag.

“[Airlines] have been reluctant to equip their aircraft due to the expense and uncertainty over FAA’s ability to meet timelines for deploying NextGen technologies,” according to the Government Accountability office. Independently verifying the foot-dragging by the airline industry is Michael Dyment, managing partner of Nexa Capital, who has led detailed assessments of NextGen challenges and progress. “Aircraft owners are not equipping the way they should,” he recently stated. He estimates there will be 100,000 aircraft not equipped with ADS-B by the January 2020 deadline. As a consequence, they will be denied access to airspace around major airports unless the FAA extends the deadline.

Alaska Airlines has been a leader in adopting the technology. So have JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. Here’s the rub: Even as these and some other carriers make the investment in equipage, other operators are stalling or moving at a snail’s pace. For all stakeholders to benefit (including the flying public), every airlines must be in the system.

The ADS-B mandate calls for airlines to equip 6,000 to 7,000 aircraft within the next 18 months and for general aviation operators to equip up to 160,000 aircraft. Again, never mind that they’ve known of their responsibility for years. As of Feb. 28, 2018, both sets of operators had only installed ADS-B in approximately 25 percent or so of the aircraft in their fleet.

Prediction: In coming months, watch for the lobbying group that represents the airline industry in Washington to dodge holding up their end of the bargain by ramping up pressure on the FAA. Their goal: extend the deadline so commercial carriers can get with the program ostensibly in name of “putting customers first.”

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