ATCA Speeches by Whitaker and Planzer point to Possible Agreement on NextGen Elements and Funding

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Speakers: Political Winds Threaten NextGen Effort


The Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) is a well-respected forum, where controllers, ATO management, ATC users and private companies which develop and sell equipment to the FAA, discuss technical issues affecting the operation of the National Airspace System. The number one issue on the mind of all of its members is where and how is NextGen moving. This article reports on a number of speeches made during the association’s convention.

The Deputy Administrator and Chief NextGen Officer, Michael Whitaker, spoke forcefully about the impact of Sequestration and Shutdown on the FAA’s efforts; he said:

“We can’t speed it up or slow it down without sending considerable ripples through the system….We remain committed to NextGen in its current schedule, but we need greater fiscal certainty this year and beyond.”

He cited the positive achievements which his team had accomplished under such trying circumstances:

· en route automation modernization (Eram) system to 17 of the 20 en route ATC centers;

· the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (Atop) upgrade of oceanic centers in New York, California and Alaska; and

· the installation of more than 70 percent of the transceivers needed for the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground network.

The clear message of his presentation is that the hiccups inherent in traditional Congressional funding and budgeting are antithetical to such a long term capital program.

Neal Planzer, a Boeing executive on NextGen who also brings years of experience within the FAA, made a telling comment, specifically saying:

If you define the outcomes you’re looking for, the priority of the technologies will self-correct…We have had a lot of false starts…Southwest put RNP [required navigation performance] on its airplanes yet saw no benefit. When things like that happen, airlines start shortening their strategic vision, holding airplanes longer and not equipping them because historically it hasn’t worked out for them.”

The gravamen of his speech is that the users need greater confidence in “buying” each of the subsystems of this massive expenditure of federal taxes and private investment in equipment.

That perspective should be well received by the Deputy Administrator, whose previous position was with United Airlines. On a macro level there is great concurrence about NextGen; however, that apparent consensus tends to dissipate as each of the components of this massive proposal is examined.

Perhaps these two speakers can use their comments as a basis for creating a list of priorities. The Whitaker comments about future funding and the Planzer observation about priorities formulate a basis for further discussions between and among the players—FAA management, working controllers, agency NextGen scientists, airlines, other ATC users, the OEMs of the equipment and the Hill. The points made at ATCA should be the basis for an agreed upon funding source and a list of NextGen’s elements which the users can support after a lot of informed, thoughtful discussion about the future of this critical realignment of the nation’s air traffic control system.

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