Evolution of the United States National Airspace: The Move Towards Performance-Based Navigation

FAA's Modernization

The new century brought about three changes to the FAA to respond to midterm and long-term issues and organizational changes to facilitate modernization. In 2001, the FAA put in place the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP). The OEP represents the FAA’s commitment to meet the air transportation needs of the U.S. for the next ten years by increasing capacity, decreasing delays, and continuing to improve safety and security at 35 critical airports in the NAS. These 35 airports carry more than 70% of all NAS air traffic. Developed in concert with the entire aviation community, the OEP addresses four core areas: Arrival and Departure Rate (AD), En Route Congestion (ER), Airport Weather (AW), and En Route Severe Weather (EW).

To further this evolution, the FAA reorganized in 2004 and created the new air traffic organization (ATO). The ATO combined the FAA’s Research and Acquisitions, Air Traffic Services and Free Flight offices into one performance-based organization. The core business of the ATO is to manage, operate, and develop air navigation systems and services safely and effectively.

In 2004, the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. created a senior policy committee with representation from across the U.S. government to fully reap the benefits from government investment while ensuring that safety, security, and environmental concerns were adequately addressed. The primary focus of this group is to develop airport infrastructure; establish effective security; create a responsive air traffic system; provide situational awareness; manage safety; introduce new policies, procedures, and technologies; reduce weather related impacts; and to harmonize operations globally to develop a next generation air transportation system or NextGen.  These activities are conducted by a Joint Planning and Development Office located in the FAA.

The reality of limited budgets now makes it necessary to do more with less. The FAA’s 2004 annual report reported that between 2003 and 2004, the number of IFR flights increased 5.5% while trust fund revenues dropped 2%. The FAA cannot afford to maintain costly equipment. A key element of modernization of the NAS is the transition to the next generation of navigation systems. That generation is here and the future is based on required navigation performance using the most effective technology that can increase safety, access and capacity while lowering operational costs. Worldwide operations must be considered. In recent years, there has been no growth in the FAA’s budget in real terms. In fact, controller workload has increased with the growth in regional and business aviation and revenues collected through ticket sales and fuel taxes are decreasing. Yet Americans expect greater capacity, increased access and continued safety from aircraft travel. In order to cut costs without effecting productivity, inefficient, costly systems must be phased out, and incoming technologies must be looked at from a systems engineering standpoint before implementation.

In the past, new technologies have been added to the NAS, sometimes without sufficient discrimination as to the extent of benefits they would provide or how they would work in unison towards a common objective in achieving improvements to capacity and safety within the NAS. Navigation technologies have historically been sensor/NAVAID specific and now the FAA is trying to move away from sensor centric capabilities towards performance based, sensor independent capabilities. New technologies must be analyzed and evaluated on a cost-benefit basis and new systems must consider the cost to the customer. While the safety of the NAS cannot be compromised, technologies leading to a performance based NAS must clearly provide additional value to the entire NAS and to the customer before they can be put in operations. As new technologies come online, the old ones that they replace must be removed in a timely manner.

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