It’s tough to fathom the scope of a suite of projects as transformational as the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). By 2030, almost all commercial and cargo aircraft flight patterns will be determined by NextGen’s satellite-based global positioning system, supported by digital technologies and advanced procedures, replacing decades-old radar technologies.
For the average flyer, NextGen’s dozens of operational capabilities across six major programs mean more efficient flight paths and continued high levels of safety—all while implementing new capabilities and keeping hundreds of millions of travelers aloft every year. NextGen is so big, so important, that there’s only one historical comparison.
“In 1919, a young army lieutenant colonel was part of a cross-country convoy. It took 62 days,” said FAA’s Assistant Administrator for NextGen Edward Bolton, the second speaker in Volpe’s Reimagining Transportation speaker series. “Thirty-seven years later as president, Dwight Eisenhower was the father of the highway system. I would argue [NextGen] is the largest infrastructure transformation program this country has seen since the highway system.”
The major ground infrastructure for NextGen is already in place. While NextGen has many moving parts and projects, modernizing the nation’s controlled airspace will rely in large part on equipping about 100,000 aircraft with avionics compatible with ground stations, Bolton said.
Through 2030, NextGen is expected to cost $29 billion and bring $134 billion in benefits.
The Funding Elephant: It’s in the Room
Since 2010, FAA has come a long way toward deploying NextGen’s core improvement—satellite-based air traffic control—by 2020. In a funding environment where competing priorities scrap for every available dollar, the most pressing challenge to seeing NextGen completed on time may be how to pay for it.
“Between what we thought we were going to get just 5 years ago and what we got, it’s $3 billion,” Bolton said. “We thought we were going to get $7 billion—we got 4. I don’t know anybody that can do $7 billion worth of work with $4 billion.”
Funding doubt, however, is practically a given with a project as complex as NextGen. The milestones met over the past decade have been possible because the NextGen team has taken a measured approach, targeting bite-sized goals.
Tackling NextGen, One Element at a Time
“Mike Whitaker, the [FAA] deputy administrator, he did a novel thing in June two years ago,” Bolton said. “He took the 39 NextGen operational capabilities and asked the users, the community, to rack and stack those in terms of priorities. And we went through a process of building a plan that would have timelines, milestones, and specific deliverables with costs and metrics to deliver actual operational capabilities in a one- to three-year timeframe.”
In addition to the ground infrastructure being completed, about three dozen major airports already have the data-sharing platform that is the information backbone of NextGen. More than 100 of the 458 helicopters that service oil rigs in the Gulf are also equipped with avionics that give them satellite coverage.
Better management of high-altitude traffic, terminal automation and modernization, and improved communications are all in development and will ensure detailed, near-real-time information sharing by 2030.
Continuing to Lead the World’s Safest Air Transportation System
Far from flipping a switch, the NextGen transformation of America’s controlled airspace depends on a systematic approach where separate programs and efforts work something like a car: all the moving parts drive forward, seamlessly, in tandem.
“Today we have the largest controlled, safest, most diverse, most complex airspace on planet Earth—but it’s not a birthright,” Bolton said. “You’ve got to fight to keep it. We cannot handle the capacity that we’re going to have in 20 years doing what we’re doing today.”