What does the FAA and Industry Commit to in the NextGen Priorities Joint Implementation Plan?

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The October 17, 2014 FAA Administrator’s announcement of a plan for the immediate future implementation had been presaged by both the Assistant Administrator of NextGen and then the Deputy Administrator/ Chief NextGen Officer. The report, NextGen Priorities Joint Implementation Plan, was requested by the House Transportation & Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Aviation. The Chairman and Ranking Member issued a joint statement “applauding” the FAA’s and Industry efforts.

What exactly does the Plan include and what were the commitments made?

The Plan, as suggested by the word “Joint”, includes the support of the RTCA NextGen Advisory Committee , which has ten US and foreign members plus 18 participants drawn from the public. The four major elements of the FAA’s paper all have as their source a NAC report issued before the Plan. The FAA’s 27 page document has an 87 page attachment from RTCA. The FAA plan oddly bears the signature of three FAA senior executives and none from the stakeholders, although it recites industry “commitments”.

The Plan outlines four major activities:

· Multiple Runway Operations (MRO) (new NextGen procedures through the use of multiple runway operations at 36 airports)

· deployment and development of other Performance Based Navigation (PBN) (satellite-based navigation procedures known as performance based navigation (PBN) at three key metropolitan areas — Northern California, Atlanta and Charlotte).

· Surface Operations (to increase surface operation data sharing in order to increase predictability and provide actionable and measurable surface efficiency improvements at our nation’s airports) and

· Data Communications(accelerating its work on data communications services to upgrade communication among pilots, air traffic controllers and airline operations centers from voice to digital)

The timelines for each discrete project, its costs, risks and industry comments are thoroughly laid out from page 6 to 23. The FAA commits to specific milestones at specific airports and what problems may be encountered are established for each. The FAA’s text makes specific commitments on each activity.

[Note: the OIG raised very serious questions about the FAA’s ability to implement and use the PBN procedures;see that Report.]

Industry, in the Plan and the RTCA report, contributes towards the plan by ensuring pilot awareness of new runway and airspace procedures, equipping aircraft with DataComm technology, collaborating with FAA on PBN airspace redesign, and data sharing. The carriers specifically agreed to equipping 1,900 aircraft by 2019; eight have already signed agreements to acquire the onboard “transmitters/receivers”.

By adopting these priorities, the FAA is not abandoning the larger NextGen program, as indicated from the following quote at page 4:

“This plan should be understood as a subset of the overall series of programs and activities the FAA is executing for NextGen, which are broader in scope and timeline and will create a more extensive transformation of the NAS. FAA’s NextGen Implementation Plan, which was also revised this year to create better transparency on specific program objectives, impacted stakeholders, benefits, budgets, and scheduled delivery, is the underlying roadmap for all of NextGen.” (footnote omitted)

There is no specific explanation whether giving preference to these projects will or will not impact other NextGen projects. Most of the dollars cited in the plan derive from Facilities & Equipment and Operations accounts; so it would not appear that moving these forward will harm the Research and Development budgets.

It is also important to note that the commitment to these “activities” is made with two considerable caveats.

First, it has created a strong incentive for industry to work for and Congress/ the Administration to pass the FY2015 budget. It did so by stating that the FAA’s side of the bargain depends on meeting the following standard:

“Our ability to complete these commitments depends on maintaining an adequate and stable funding stream. …More fundamentally, in an environment of constrained resources, FAA’s highest priority will always be the safe day-to-day operation of the NAS”. (emphasis added; p. 5 of the Plan)

That is a somewhat nebulous standard. For example, does it require that the FAA’s NextGen budget be fully funded for more that the Facilities& Equipment and Operations account? Or is this “hedge” meant to say that if the 2015 CY budget does not designate a “stable funding stream”, then the FAA’s promises are void?

The second condition established in the Plan is contained in this lengthy quote:

“All parties must understand that the FAA’s agreement to assess a capability does not imply agreement to implement the capability, because the FAA must always make a credible business case to justify the full lifecycle costs. Implementation of future capabilities will be determined by established FAA processes that transcend the overarching lifecycle and acquisition management processes. These include: strategic planning, management and budgeting, enterprise architecture, portfolio management and ultimately program management. For example, new operational capabilities must be planned and managed through the NAS Enterprise Architecture Service Roadmaps. Those capabilities that require procurement decisions are governed by the FAA Acquisition Management System. During implementation, changes within programs are then governed by internal program management processes. Finally, the FAA must comply with its NAS Configuration Control process to adjust the NAS baseline to reflect the equipment changes required to support any new capability. These existing FAA processes ensure that all NAS changes are operationally, technically and financially responsible and feasible, and that the required documentation is in place to adequately reflect the change to the NAS and the reasons for it.” (emphasis added; pp.5-6)

The establishment of those internal FAA reviews assures the final decision to implement has as many twists, turns and traps as the Knossos labyrinth. The requirement that the Plan activities meet such tests was surely made in good faith, but ten different elements of review greatly increases the probability that a “no go” decision will result.

NextGen is a massive project and it is interesting that the users placed their priorities on short-term tactical benefits. The Plan’s list cannot be said to be a user endorsement of NextGen’s heavy infrastructure investments; there is no mention of the controversial ADS-B program, for example. The FAA has created a website which it represented to be a transparent, real time dash board for the Plan’s milestones. This momentous FAA-stakeholder consensus of what should be given priority in implementation has caveats; so the FAA’s Snapshot will be carefully followed by the users, Congress and all interested parties.

Press Release FAA and Industry Announce Plan To Accelerate Delivery of NextGen Benefits

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