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Sat, May 22, 2010

NextGen Summit: Cleared Direct? Lots Of Work To Do

But AOPA Tells 'Em, With A Smile, GA's Already Been There

Special to ANN: Drew Steketee Reports From Washington

"We're in deployment. We're making it happen," said FAA's Vincent Capezzuta, director of Surveillance and Broadcast Services in ATO.

He quantified fast-growing ADS-B coverage (120 operating stations now and 323 by September mostly covering the East, Gulf and Alaska.) Also impressive: ADS-B's small, simple, handy radio stations trumping testy old radars atop remote mountaintops.

Others briefed their various projects, calling again for making "the business case." An audience side-conversation observed that some fuel savings were fairly small, per-flight, but big savings were in "the multiples" over a large fleet, day-after-day. The painful investment to achieve those multiples -- re-tooling a LOT of airplanes and crews.

FAA Acting Airports Chief, Catherine Lang, illuminated more than that occurs about NEXTGEN's potential and issues for airports. Bob Pearce covered Congressional-darling JPDO's role coordinating Federal players such as DOD, Homeland Security and National intelligence interests. Others highlighted oceanic operations -- a real opportunity to extend over-ocean ATC surveillance and allow In-Trail Procedures (ITP) for fuel-saving, beyond-radar climb clearances as close as 15 nm to other traffic.

Bob Pearce,
Deputy Director, JPDO

NEXTGEN will be a new world for airlines.

Continental's program at Newark will win IMC approaches out of the ILS conga line by curving traffic to EWR's under-utilized cross-runway, just as they do now in VFR. Alaska and other carriers are working for fuel- and noise-stingy IMC over-water "Elliott Bay" constant descents at idle into the Sea-Tac pattern. (Significantly, Alaska then starts getting substantial new-nav returns in the Lower 48, not just in the rugged North.)   

GA was SO early in adopting GPS, even for IFR, that it all sounded a little funny. Or perhaps not. Airlines face massive equipage costs, aircraft downtime and re-training of pilots - all while keeping their schedules and (trying to) hang on financially. CEOs have demanded that "business case." (I still remember resistance to autopilots down in Third Level commuter airlines. Company presidents who wrote the check would joke, "What, then, is the co-pilot I hired for?)
GA was indeed an early believer and AOPA Senior VP Melissa Rudinger was there to make the point with grace and wise understatement. Yes, she said, GPS is aboard by the tens of thousands; and "glass" now floods our cockpits. But her story from a recent AOPA airplane give-away said it all.

Melissa Rudinger,
AOPA Senior VP - Government Affairs

She recounted that as a major cargo airline pilot got keys to his new AOPA prize-plane, local TV asked, "What will it be like to fly this little plane after all the technology in your airliner?"

He responded wistfully, "This thing's got ten times the hi-tech of what I fly for a living!"

Understanding laughter preceded sincere applause. Point gently made.

Aside from airlines' investment in tough times, Nancy Graham of ICAO raised international harmonization issues that can't be left to the last minute. But another, more domestic political question occurs. Is the real threat a shift away from government's 20th Century role and towards less public investment by imposing costs more directly on direct users of new infrastructure?

The whole nation benefited from 20th Century advances as aviation rose, literally, from the ashes of its early safety record. But now, speaker after speaker took pains to recite aviation's contributions to our economy and quality of life. With more tools migrating to the individual cockpit, will someone again claim it's time to deliver the bill directly to that direct user? Increasingly tolled freeways and new "High Occupancy Lane" charges portend it. Rockwell Collins' Clay Jones did say that that $40 billion might be hard to come by! 

Technology breeds much change, some unexpected. NEXTGEN bears watching, support - and MUCH more public education. But pilots, engineers, cost accountants and frustrated air travelers alike might revel in an integrated, 21st Century system that flows better and smarter. Will FAA's revised clearance to this destination now remain direct and de-conflicted?

Or... will we get further vectors, delays and re-routes?       



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