By Pamela Whitley, Acting Assistant Administrator for NextGen, FAA
In 2003, we made a promise to the American people. We promised, through NextGen, that we would make aviation in the United States safer, more efficient, and more flexible by transforming the National Airspace System (NAS) and bringing it into the modern digital age.
To deliver on our promise, we teamed up with a diverse array of aviation professionals representing disciplines as diverse as human factors research, meteorology, physics, engineering, medicine, and more. At the FAA, we provided the nexus of a far-reaching and highly technical research and development effort with the goal of completely transforming our national airspace by studying our legacy infrastructure and identifying potential improvements -- from gate-to-gate through every phase of flight – in an effort to modernize our national airspace for the 21st century. This was no easy task.
From its inception, NextGen represented a significant leap forward for our air transportation system. In fact, NextGen is one of the most ambitious infrastructure and modernization projects in US history, requiring a high level of coordination, collaboration, research, and implementation. The complexity of this multi-year effort required dedication and a laser focus on the successful development and implementation of new concepts and technologies that would not only keep aviation safe, but also be flexible enough to respond to new and increasing demands. Another critical factor was maintaining the safety and operation of our legacy capabilities while we developed, tested, and installed NextGen foundational infrastructure.
At the beginning of our journey, we convened a working group to guide NextGen. As an organization, and in partnership with the aviation industry and academia, we agreed to focus our initial efforts on improvements to our legacy navigation, communication, surveillance, and automation systems, which were beginning to strain under massive use and increasing demand. By focusing on these four core elements of our aviation infrastructure as well as our lack of reliable information-sharing systems, we felt we would be better able to pinpoint inefficiencies and their cost to aviation and develop modern, cutting-edge concepts and technologies that would bring significant improvements to the way we manage and use our airspace. Moreover, we would be able to meet new and emerging challenges with responsive concepts and systems that would keep pace with system use and growth.
After setting our NextGen priorities, we began making investments and building requirements. One of the major goals of NextGen is to move operations into a Time-Based Operations (TBO) environment. For the uninitiated, TBO is an air traffic management method for strategically planning, managing, and optimizing flights throughout operation by using time-based management, information exchange between air/ground systems, and the aircraft’s ability to fly precise paths in time and space. After implementation, we expect TBO to provide flight efficiency, throughput, predictability, and flexibility benefits to the entire NAS.
Since beginning our work on NextGen, we have made several important innovations that represent a significant transformation of the NAS.
The backbone of our NextGen innovations, Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), allows us to use GPS satellite technology to pinpoint aircraft location information more precisely and monitor additional important flight intent data. ADS-B can also provide real-time traffic, flight, and weather information to pilots of properly equipped aircraft to enhance safety. As of the beginning of September 2019, there are over 97,000 aircraft equipped with avionics that comply with the January 2020 rule deadline to equip with ADS-B Out to fly in most US airspace.
We have also significantly changed the way we communicate. We now use digital communications systems to create a common environment for the exchange of information. Through the Data Communications (DataComm) capability, we provide digital communications between controllers and pilots, supplementing voice communications with digitally delivered messages for flight crew to review and accept.
Through Performance-Based Navigation (PBN), we have begun to use an advanced, satellite-based form of air navigation to fly precisely defined 3D flight paths in an effort to provide more timely and fuel-efficient routes to system users.
To enable critical NextGen capabilities in the terminal and en route airspace, we have laid the groundwork for NextGen air traffic control with cutting-edge automation, decision support, and information systems, such as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), Time Based Flow Management (TBFM), Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM), Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS), and System Wide Information Management (SWIM). These new, agile systems have been implemented over the past several years and have already begun to show their value to airspace users.
Today, we stand at the threshold of an entirely new NAS. Moreover, this new NAS is primed and ready for the next phase of our effort: Operationalization. Simply put, our new national airspace system is open and ready for TBO!
In order to achieve operationalization and to realize the full range of NextGen operational improvements, additional work is required within the FAA, as well as in industry to ensure interdependent investments are completed to realize full benefits of the integrated air-ground system. This is especially important as the deployment of NextGen has moved beyond fundamental infrastructure upgrades and is now focusing on integrated operational changes for TBO, enabled by new technologies on the ground and in the air.
To enhance a timely move to operationalization, we asked our industry-led NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) to identify risks and mitigations to the successful operational implementation of industry commitments. The NAC subsequently identified mixed aircraft equipage as a risk to achieving full NextGen benefits, and they highlighted the need for a clear and comprehensive guide to support uniform equipage in the NAS. The NAC’s advice on mixed equipage and risk mitigation from the aviation community resulted in the Minimum Capabilities List (MCL). The MCL represents the minimum aircraft capabilities (and associated equipment) needed to derive the most benefit from NextGen government investments and operational improvements. It provides guidance for forward-fit aircraft and covers capabilities in navigation, communications, surveillance, and resiliency. The MCL also provides information on supplemental equipage for operators to maximize NextGen improvements. The FAA will continue collaboration on aircraft equipage with industry and will work together on strategies to drive acceptance and utilize the MCL.
We are also continuing our effort to implement ground-based system improvements and integrated implementation strategy for the first phase of TBO, thereby fulfilling our promise to operationalize NextGen. This strategy accounts for the deployment, training, and operational use of the key set of capabilities and operational improvements to deliver on the first phase of TBO. This effort focuses on delivering the right tools to the right locations in the NAS in an optimally timed and sequenced manner. Additionally, we continue our close coordination and collaboration with the wider aviation community on the aircraft capabilities, data exchange, and training needed to maximize the returns on our combined investments in NextGen.
In the coming years, we will remain committed to a continuous and dedicated operationalization of NextGen’s upgrades. We — along with our industry stakeholders — will continue to deliver on our promises to emphasize safety, increase efficiency, improve environmental performance, and enhance passenger experience in the busiest and safest airspace in the world.