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NextGen Technologies Are Rolling Out; Will the Benefits Be Worth the Cost?
Everyone has likely heard the promises made about the benefits of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) NextGen air traffic control (ATC) system, but many of the advantages of the new air traffic management plan seem far off and expensive. However, the FAA says business aircraft operators can realize some of the benefits now, and the agency suggests that operators should make the necessary preparations to take advantage of additional new technologies as they roll out.
In general, the FAA's NextGen plan may be thought of in three separate phases: navigational improvements utilizing global positioning system (GPS) technology, "ADS-B" (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) air traffic surveillance and separation, and datalink cockpit communications.
The level of progress made to date in each category – and what is most noticeable to operators – follows roughly the same order. Pilots have used GPS for years to fly more direct routes and conduct approaches utilizing required navigation performance (RNP) standards. Anyone with an aircraft equipped with the required GPS equipment can benefit in fuel savings, lower operating costs and improved safety margins.
Localizer performance with vertical guidance (LPV) are the highest precision GPS aviation instrument approach procedures currently available without specialized aircrew training requirements, such as RNP. With LPV, operators have increased flexibility to land more places. These approaches utilize the increased availability and integrity of GPS navigation made possible by the Wide Area Augmentation System to provide vertically guided approaches to minimums as low as 200 feet and ½ mile visibility.
"General aviation operators benefit from LPV today," says Victoria Cox, senior vice president for NextGen and operations at the FAA. "Right now, if you're equipped for performance-based navigation, such as RNAV [area navigation] and WAAS [wide area augmentation system], you can fly those approaches to over 1,000 airports nationwide."
The advent of in-cockpit ATC separation and datalink communications, however, is years away. It's not a coincidence those are the technologies requiring large-scale investment by both the FAA and operators, including upgrades to thousands of aircraft.
"It's the difference between planning a vacation for your family, and a vacation for yourself," said Steve Brown, NBAA's senior vice president of operations and administration. "You're speaking of a need for disparate stakeholders to move in the same direction... group behavior rather than a single-aircraft investment, which is, of course, more complex to pull off."
The FAA's Cox notes the agency intends to provide ADS-B benefits in the cockpit by 2013. "That's something people should start planning for," she says, adding while in-cockpit "ADS-B Out" service is not mandated until 2020, "essential" ground-based services are already in place now in some areas of the United States.
Operators who have already upgraded are benefitting now from that technology, says Cox. "Flight information and traffic advisories are available along the East Coast, and we're working across the country now. It is broadly available to operators today."
Cox notes that helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico, who have access to ADS-B "critical" services including GPS-based position reporting to in-cockpit traffic advisory systems, have seen "tremendous" benefits from the technology. "They have realized the ability to save 10 minutes flying time and 100 pounds of fuel per trip, on average," she says.
From Analog to Digital
The third phase of NextGen is the transition from analog to digital communication between cockpits and air traffic control. Cox notes the agency is conducting trials of satellite-based datalink communications in the oceanic environment, and expects to deliver data services to Future Avionics Navigation System (FANS) 1/A-equipped aircraft by 2015.
"Datalink communications will ultimately reduce separation, producing more system capacity," NBAA's Brown states. "The benefit is somewhat indirect: If you're a current operator, it's hard to be worried about capacity 30-plus years from now." The promise of future expanded system capacity may not be a compelling argument for a company to make a substantial investment in new equipment now," adds Brown.
To the latter point, Brown believes many individuals and companies in the business aviation community are still waiting to be shown that the benefits of ADS-B and datalink will outweigh the admittedly significant investment. "If a certain group of operators perceives an application with a clear business case now, they will equip early," he says. "If the case for upgrading becomes very clear, people are going to move in that direction."
The Cost Question
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt acknowledged the cost factor during a speech at the 2011 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit, which was held in April. In his comments, Babbitt stressed the need for operators to focus on the long-term benefits, over short-term costs.
"There's so much to be gained by completing the shift in navigation that will come with NextGen – so much potential, on so many levels," Babbitt said. "The question we should be asking is not ‘What will it cost to do this?' but ‘What will it cost not to do this?' If this was a business meeting for a board of directors, and I brought you a proposal that said we'll invest $8 billion up front, but when the project is complete, we'll save $4 billion each year going forward, there would be approval for that proposal.
"We want feedback from our Members as they make investments in NextGen," said Brown. "We want to hear how they feel the effort could be changed or improved, and how they see the benefits materializing. All of that helps us in dong a better job to represent our membership."
Anyone with comments about their experiences with NextGen is encouraged to contact the NBAA Operations Service Group at (202) 783-9250 or [email protected].