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Thu, May 20, 2010

NextGen 'Summit' Begins Call For Consensus

Special to ANN: Drew Steketee Reports From Washington

Some 300 industry and government players kicked-off a three-day "NEXTGEN Ahead 2010 Summit" in Washington, May 19th.

Obvious from the start: the call for industry and users to get behind this massive shift in ATC.

Also obvious: to date, it's been mostly about airlines and not (yet) about GA.

The elephant in the room: the on-board equipment required to play and who can or will pay for it.

Successful demonstrations were cited for Satnav and ADS-B to replace today's radio-nav and radar-based system. Representatives of Naverus (now part of GE) showed hairy-looking approaches and departures in river valleys and around terrain in Brisbane, Australia, and Juneau, Alaska. Others cited new IFR capabilities for tight turns and hill-jumping step-downs on final (instead of ILS's long glide). Semi-circular "radius around a fix" turns allowed flexible traffic sequencing to final from various points on a busy extended downwind.

FAA and Delta Air Lines speakers covered NEXTGEN's potential for multiple re-routes around weather and flexibility in multi-airport "Metroplex" areas. Speakers illustrated NEXTGEN benefits already here, but Delta added that technology is potentially "outpacing (ATC) procedures and (design) criteria."

NEXTGEN is more than Satnav, ADS-B and approaches. For instance, data communications and information sharing are key elements. RTCA president Margaret Jenny said their Task Force 5 found that bundling five disparate NEXTGEN capabilities as "Data Comm" investments made them compelling and cost-effective. But an earlier workshop covered difficulties merging different data systems and their security protections. Net-centricity issues worry NEXTGEN.

Other speakers emphasized that NEXTGEN should be selling capabilities, not technologies. Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, now Aerospace Industries Association president, summarized Day One with a frank call. "I think it's time to reach consensus to accelerate NEXTGEN." Blakey challenged "wait-and-see attitudes" and doubters who question NEXTGEN benefits, "especially if air traffic doesn't recover. Are airlines betting that traffic won't come back?" she asked.

Blakey recited the laundry list of delay-cutting, fuel- and environment-saving national benefits of NEXTGEN. Then she suggested the industry stop debating itself and start a national advertising/PR campaign to sell the public on NEXTGEN. But she herself admitted that "Some level of future benefits must be taken on faith" even as she posited that "the system could pay for itself in three years," if all intangibles were taken into account.

"We must collaborate as an aviation community," she warned. (Industry and association execs then did just that in a late-day three-hour executive session.)

Throughout the day, equipage was "a tough topic" as Blakey and others admitted. A questioner posed the tough one: "After TARP, recession bail-outs and a burgeoning Federal deficit, is there any chance Congress would underwrite NEXTGEN cockpit avionics? Respondents were cautious, but some continued to imagine incentives, grants and loans to help. Talk of mandates was downplayed.

Blakey concluded with a call to "clear away the ash cloud of uncertainty" plaguing NEXTGEN. We'll see. And there's another issue; the Naverus (GE) rep raised it. "So far, it's all been mostly airlines. I can't wait to get General Aviation more involved."

Another elephant! (AOPA's representative will be "in the room" Friday to join the discussion).

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.dot.gov

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