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The Promise of NextGen

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The tablet computer has been built. Now it’s time to load a few apps.

That’s the analogy for the Next Generation Air Transportation System—NextGen—that Michael Whitaker, deputy administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), gave recently as part of Volpe’s Transportation and the Economy speaker series.

This past spring, FAA finished constructing ground infrastructure foundational to NextGen’s success. Now, Whitaker said, it’s time to make that infrastructure useful for the three basic things that happen during flight: surveillance, navigation, and communication.

While NextGen will affect all three of those areas, several of the leading impacts will happen in communication.

Simple Technology, Big Gains

Michael Whitaker, FAA Deputy Administrator“Compare flying to driving a car,” Whitaker said. “In a car your navigation is fairly simple. As far as communicating, you use your turn signals, maybe your horn—maybe other types of communication in city traffic. Communication is not a big part of driving. But it is a very big part of what you do when you fly.”

Consider a pilot coming in for landing. Suddenly the wind shifts. The pilot now has to land at a different runway. Today, air traffic controllers would provide voice clearance allowing the pilot to go to a runway appropriate for the new wind direction.

“As a pilot, you are listening all the time for your call sign,” Whitaker said. “You receive an instruction from air control and you read back the instruction to make sure you got it right and then you implement the instruction. It’s a very inefficient system that will be replaced by a digital system.”

With NextGen functionality in place, communication will be handled by text messages, allowing controllers to clear backlogs of airplanes much more quickly.

A Massive Undertaking

NextGen is a project of enormous scale that goes well beyond the communications component. It is a 20-year, $20 billion effort akin to replacing a car engine while the car is racing down a highway. No hazard lights allowed. No pulling over to the shoulder.

In addition to communication improvements, NextGen upgrades will transform how air traffic controllers do the other major part of their job: surveillance.

“With surveillance we are upgrading the entire network, which was previously based on radar,” said Whitaker. “To put this in context, there are 60,000 flight operations every day. Any work we do has to be done while the system is running. We are pulling out all the old equipment and putting in new equipment, new computer screens, software, new training and procedures throughout the system.”

NextGen Today, NextGen Tomorrow

In many ways, NextGen is not next—it’s happening now. In Houston, global positioning has allowed more direct routes and descent procedures into the area’s many busy airports. Passengers save time, and airlines save millions of dollars in fuel costs. 

“It’s like we’ve taken this system of back roads and we’re building an interstate system over it to connect cities,” Whitaker said.

Modern highway or modern tablet computer? No matter the analogy, NextGen is poised over the next decade to reduce costs, improve passenger experience, and reduce environmental impacts throughout the busiest air travel system in the world.

Air traffic control tpwer with plane in background.