A Better View

23 August 2007 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2007 18:30)

The ageing air traffic control system in the US has no chance of handling projected future demand and must be upgraded. The FAA's Robert A Sturgell explains how NextGen will give air traffic controllers the tools to keep everyone flying.

A Better View

Civil aviation accounts for over $1tn in economic activity, which represents some 5.5% of the total US economy. Aviation-related sectors employ ten million Americans, providing $343bn in wages. Globally, civil aviation provides similar benefits to many other countries.

However, projected traffic growth rates may lead to increased air traffic congestion, which could jeopardise these economic benefits.

With this in mind, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is building the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will transform and modernise the US airspace system to handle a two to three-fold increase in air traffic.

THE PROBLEM: ANTIQUATED SYSTEMS

The current system, largely based on 1950s and 1960s technology, will not be able to handle these projected traffic increases, and steps taken to expand capacity, such as dividing airspace sectors, are limited. In fact, increasing air traffic controllers' sector-to-sector tasking diminishes real capacity gains. Moreover, many sectors in congested traffic corridors, such as the US Northeast, can no longer be split to increase capacity.

"NextGen tools could reduce flight times by as much as 3%."

In an effort to solve this problem, the FAA has conducted research to test the limits of the current system. It asked 12 en-route air traffic supervisors to use current air traffic tools to handle 25% higher traffic levels. They were also asked to assess their workload on a scale of 1–7, with 1 being the lowest.

This experiment revealed that the supervisors could not handle the traffic increase while workloads were rated at 6–7. These results suggest that if we're going to handle future traffic growth, our system must transform.

THE SOLUTION: NEXTGEN

The FAA intends to build NextGen by 2025. The system will be able to:

  • Move from ground-based radar to more precise satellite-based surveillance
  • Make greater use of smaller airports, along with the bigger ones
  • Incorporate post-9/11 security measures
  • Prioritise environmental protection
  • Equip air traffic controllers with enhanced automation tools, helping them become airspace managers

The FAA's research also indicated how NextGen would tackle increased flights. The air traffic supervisors were asked to handle the same level of traffic using an enhanced suite of capabilities, including data communications, an integrated sector display and automatic conflict scanning. These tools are part of the larger NextGen project.

The results showed that with this NextGen toolset the supervisors could not only handle a 25% increase in traffic, they could actually manage up to two to three times as much. Even more impressively, they handled it with relative ease, reporting only a slight increase in their workload. Preliminary estimates also indicate that using these NextGen tools could reduce flight times by as much as 3%.

PERFORMANCE-BASED APPROACH

The results suggest that only an integrated technological approach can produce the air traffic services required to meet future demand. With these enhanced capabilities, many of the routine air traffic tasks now handled by controllers will be automated. This move towards a performance-based air traffic control system is comparable to the telecommunications industry's shift from a manual to an automatic telephone network.

While these initial studies are encouraging, several questions remain. How will this automated air traffic system be affected by convective weather, power failures or a loss of data or voice communications? What would an effective backup system look like? Such a system would require multiple levels of redundancy, since controllers would not be able to step in and handle the vast traffic load.

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

The FAA has previously focused on producing individual programmes. However, future air traffic services will depend on integrating multiple technological programmes, all of which must work simultaneously, so the NextGen systems will require a multidimensional programme and operational integration structure.

"Many of the routine air traffic tasks now handled by controllers will be automated."

The FAA has experience with integration management through the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), which coordinates runway construction and other capacity programmes.

Runway construction involves coordinating a wide range of activities, including environmental impact assessments, public hearings, frequency allocation and controller training, all of which need to be effectively integrated and ready for the opening date.

This concept of integration was also applied when FAA implemented reduced vertical separation minimums. On 20 January 2005, the US, Canada and Mexico all switched over to the new minimums at precisely the same moment.

THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIP

Building NextGen is a much greater undertaking because of the level of modernisation involved. The FAA has therefore revamped the OEP from a capacity plan to a full-scale transformation vehicle, now known as the Operational Evolution Partnership. The change of name to 'partnership' is significant because it recognises that the FAA must work with the aviation community and other government agencies.

An OEP team will be at the helm of the transformation. This team will be chaired by the FAA's deputy administrator and comprises the Air Traffic Organization's COO, key FAA associate administrators, the director of the joint planning and development office, the ATO's operational vice-presidents and the ATO vice-president of operations planning.

"Future air traffic services will depend on integrating multiple technological programmes."

This team will oversee every stage of the NextGen process, from research and development, integrating multiple programmes, aviation community input and rulemaking and requirements for avionics.

The avionics piece is important, considering that NextGen will require user equipage for various new capabilities. It is also what makes global harmonisation so important, as Europe is moving ahead with its Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research programme. Global air traffic systems must be interoperable to maximize safety and efficiency and permit a smoother transition for users, and in 2006 the FAA and the European Commission signed an agreement pledging to collaborate.

The OEP will also develop a select group of high-activity airports in the US and their surrounding metro regions. These 15 metro areas – Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles Basin, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, South Florida, and Washington-Baltimore – account for 58% of passenger activity and almost 15% of the aircraft based in the US.

ROLLING OUT THE PLAN

Several key NextGen benefits will be delivered between 2015 and 2017, including initiating trajectory-based operations, increasing arrival and departures at high-density airports and flexibility in the terminal environment, improving collaborative air traffic management, reducing weather impact, increasing safety, security and environmental performance, and transforming and networking air traffic facilities.

Some of the benefits will derive from the development and integration of new and existing programmes such as performance-based navigation (area navigation and required navigation performance), automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), NextGen network enabled weather (NNEW) and system-wide information management (SWIM).

With 2015 rapidly approaching and 2025 not far behind, we are still using an air transportation system designed and built in the last century, and this is simply not scalable to meet projected traffic growth.

NextGen will transform the air traffic control system into a more automated, performance based air traffic management system, and this can only enhance safety and increase capacity and productivity. The net result will be a better air traffic system that will ensure safe air travel and help meet tomorrow’s economic demands.