FAA is fighting a perception problem over how much progress is being made in implementing the NextGen air traffic control (ATC) modernization program, a top agency official said.
“There’s just not a recognition of some of the accelerated things that have been happening,” FAA assistant administrator-NextGen Jim Eck told reporters on the sidelines of the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) Conference and Exposition in National Harbor, Maryland.
FAA is about halfway through an 18-year ATC modernization initiative encompassing a variety of technologies and procedural changes, all coming under the umbrella of NextGen. A number of members of Congress and US airline executives have complained that NextGen has moved too slowly.
Part of the problem, Eck said, is that much of FAA’s focus has been on building foundational technologies to make NextGen capabilities possible, and the full benefits will only be realized once all of the elements come together. FAA expects NextGen’s benefits “to rise exponentially when we get all of these things in place,” Eck said, noting that the agency estimates $160.6 billion in total NextGen benefits for US National Airspace System (NAS) users by 2030.
“There was a lot of work that had to go into infrastructure upgrades” to lay the groundwork for NextGen, he explained.
Eck said the final foundational piece of NextGen is the Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM) system for which Lockheed Martin was awarded a $344 million contract in July. “TFDM will work by integrating digital flight plans with surface surveillance data to create accurate, real-time predictive tools for the terminal environment,” according to Lockheed. “TFDM will share data among controllers, aircraft operators and airports so they can better stage arrivals and departures, and manage traffic flow within terminal airspace for greater efficiency.”
Moving from paper to electronic flight strips “is one of the first big things” TFDM will make possible, Eck said, adding that US air traffic controllers at major airport towers will start using electronic flight strips in 2020.
Eck acknowledged criticism that FAA still uses paper flight strips and will continue to do so for several more years. “The fact of the matter is electronic flight strip information by itself isn’t that much different than paper” in terms of efficiency, he said. Electronic flight strips become extremely beneficial when they are integrated with data shared among the entire ATC system, which is what TFDM will make possible, Eck said.
The goal of NextGen is to move from a “tactical and reactive” ATC system to “strategic air traffic management,” Eck said, explaining, “Right now the future time and position of a given aircraft is not known by all parties [in the ATC system] … The transformation we’re looking for is that everyone in the system knows where the aircraft is [in real time] and where it is going.”
But this transformation is about more than implementing new technology, he cautioned. “The technology we need is within our grasp,” Eck said. “We know what we need and we know the people that can build the technology. There’s nothing we need to invent. Technology is not the issue. The challenge is getting everyone [in the ATC system] to use it the same way. The technological shift means everyone has to do their job differently in the future.”
NextGen’s benefits will only be totally realized when the airline industry fully equips to take advantage of the technology FAA is putting in place, he added. “Now that we’ve got our infrastructure done and we’ve done a lot of work on [advanced navigation] procedures, we’re focusing on [airlines] getting equipped with ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] capability,” Eck said, noting that “all of the major carriers have detailed plans for equipage.” For regional airlines, ADS-B equipage is “more challenging,” he conceded.
The primary message Eck wants to communicate to both airlines and Congress about NextGen is that, despite some challenges in the early years of the program’s implementation, it is starting to generate real benefits for system users and those benefits will only increase over time. “By and large, when you’re building on the front end, there’s not a lot to talk about unless it’s not going well,” he said, referring to delays and cost overruns in the first years of NextGen.
But “there’s now some really good progress being made here,” Eck emphasized.