"Slowing Down is a Mistake"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Washington, D.C.
March 9, 2010

Forecast Conference


Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning, and thank you, Mr. Secretary [LaHood] for those insights. And thank you, Nancy [LoBue], for putting me on the schedule right before lunch time.

For those of us who’ve been in this business any length of time, we know two things with a great deal of certainty. Number 1, whatever the forecast numbers may be — however rosy or iffy the projections are — it’s important to recognize that aviation is hyper-cyclic. Whatever is happening in the economy, aviation reflects it; magnifies it. When the down-times hit, they have a larger impact on aviation. If the economy catches a cold, the aviation industry gets pneumonia. But when things are flying high, so indeed are we.

Point two is that forecasts over the years are a clear indication that aviation is resilient. It took centuries to overcome the laws of gravity. And the business of aviation has bounced back from every obstacle since then. For the moment, we’re not bouncing back as fast or as high as some would like, but it would be foolish to think that aviation is down for the count.

With that as context, I believe that this aviation forecast is a major point in a very strong business case for NextGen. If you’re thinking that because the numbers are down, there’s no need for NextGen or airport improvements, I would counter that it is unwise to make long-term decisions with short-term information.

Aviation teaches us again and again the importance of getting ahead of the curve, and it will punish you if you don’t. It’s just flat-out wrong to contend that sluggish economic growth, high unemployment or even higher oil prices in the near term are an occasion to ease up on our plans for modernization.

Empty seats are harder to find, and that’s a sign that carriers are getting better at matching supply and demand. Commercial operations growth will continue at major airports like Dulles, Houston, Las Vegas and Orlando. The total forecast increase in commercial operations at the busiest airports between now and 2030 is 60 percent. That tells me that the system will continue to be busy. Of course, when you’re tenth in line to take off, growth rates are of little interest to you. The people in this business know that unless we keep NextGen in gear, you’ll long for the day where you were lucky enough to be tenth in line.

NextGen addresses the trifecta of safety, efficiency and the environment head on. The good news about this plan, the most dramatic and far-reaching overhaul of the National Airspace System, is that many NextGen projects address all three at the same time. There’s a misconception out there that there’s not much more to NextGen than ADS-B. That’s not even close to accurate. While ADS-B gets more than its share of publicity when it comes to NextGen, the modernization plan contains many other programs that will have a considerable impact on how we fly. Each one of them is both a smart and necessary investment and they are interdependent.

Take the case of Data Communications. Every time pilots receive voice communications from controllers, there are opportunities for misunderstandings. Aviation can’t afford that kind of leeway. Communications must be precise and exact. NextGen’s data communications package all but eliminates the potential for misunderstanding due to poor radio performance, English language difficulties and incorrect read-backs.

But data comm isn’t just a boost for safety. It allows the uploading of complex instructions that can be accepted by the pilot and sent directly to the flight management system of the aircraft — eliminating another opportunity for errors from incorrect data entry. That sets the domino in motion for more direct routes, which results in shorter distances flown. You save time, money, fuel and emissions. It almost eliminates the need for voice communications, resulting in reduced controller and pilot workloads.

Satellite navigation and procedures are going to enhance situational awareness for the pilot and controller. Operating behind the scenes with just as much impact is something called SWIM — system-wide information management. SWIM is going to be one of the hallmarks of NextGen. It provides a common picture of the aviation system all the way around, to controllers, pilots, airline ops centers, DoD, and DHS.

It will give us relevant, real-time information and help us distribute it in a way that’s easier, less costly, and more efficient to the groups that need it, so that they can make better, more informed decisions. Unless everybody’s looking at the same picture at the same time, things have the potential to start dropping through the cracks.

We’re also looking to tackle how we manage the weather. In my experience, both as a pilot and in the last month with a snow shovel, Mother Nature just about always has the upper hand. But NextGen is aiming to reduce the weather impact with improved forecasts and getting that information to the people who need it when they need it and where they need it.

In the past, when I filed a flight plan, I was looking at a weather map. By the time I got to the cockpit, that flight plan was based on a weather picture that was already out-dated. When I was in the air, it could be several hours old. Through a project we call the “4D Weather Cube,” NextGen will improve safety by giving everyone a continuously updated weather picture. Imagine controllers, air traffic operations and pilots all using the same, accurate weather picture. As a pilot, the thought of weather updates coming into the cockpit automatically, giving me recommendations to amend the flight plan, that’s safety, efficiency and the potential for lower fuel burn all in the same package. Better weather reporting also means better route adjustments and fewer ground delays.

The NextGen vision also has at its heart tackling the environmental protection and energy challenges to allow for sustained aviation growth. Aircraft and aircraft engines have become dramatically more efficient over the last 40 years, resulting in a 70 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. The airlines want to go another 30 percent by 2025. Historically most reductions in aviation’s noise and emissions impacts have come from new technologies. However, we’ll need to do more if we are to realize fully the benefits that the NextGen system can offer.

To build on that record and shrink aviation’s environmental footprint we have established CLEEN, the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise program. CLEEN’s goal is to accelerate the development of the good ideas and promising new technologies and get them into the civil fleet as quickly as possible.

We are also seeking to change the equation for both energy use and costs with the development and deployment of sustainable alternative fuels. CAAFI, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, is a partnership with the airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, fuel producers, suppliers, academia and other government agencies. We’ve got more than 300 participants, sponsors like ACI, AIA, ATA. They’re working to identify fuels that have safe and practical utility for aircraft. The requirements include a secure supply, being cost-effective and being green. We’ve achieved the first new fuel standard in 20 years, a 50 percent synthetic blend, and we’re on track to approve a 50 percent bio-blend fuel by early next year.

With respect to continuing to move forward and providing a more efficient air traffic system, the NextGen technology and procedures are working.

You’re already aware of the benefits we’re getting from continuous descent, required navigational performance and RNAV routes. At Hartsfield, it’s 6.9 million dollars and 2.5 million gallons. Almost 90 percent of commercial operators are equipped to fly RNAV routes and procedures.

According to UPS, the continuous descent advisor at Louisville shows a 30 percent reduction in noise around the airport. They’re telling us that nitrous oxide emissions are cut by a third below 3,000 feet, and they’re saving as much as 69 gallons of fuel per arrival. The new separation standards we just announced for the East Coast oceanic region increases the available routes by 40 percent. These give controllers the flexibility to offer more efficient altitudes which gets you where you’re going much more quickly.

I don’t want you to think this is all for the commercial fleet. The wide area augmentation system is making a difference in GA. There are more than 1,975 localizer performance vertical guidance approaches in place at 1,050 airports. 32,000 aircraft already are equipped with avionics to take advantage of the procedures. We published 411 LPV approaches in 0-8, and more than 500 in 0-9.

NextGen is worth the investment, and it’s a big part of the on-going discussions on reauthorization. With that back on the table and ratcheting up I expect the dialogue to increase. Certainly, equipage is among the issues, and incentivizing equipage is of interest to each of us. We’re doing our part, and we need the entire community to step forward. A properly managed and effective mix of FAA and stakeholder participants is needed to ensure implementation of NextGen capabilities. This involvement will be instrumental in developing local applications of emerging “best-equipped/ best-served” principles to stimulate even greater levels of aircraft equipage. Needless to say, there’s more to come.

In considering the forecast as a whole and what it means to NextGen, I think that all of these numbers are hard to walk away from. With NextGen, we’re safer, we’re more efficient, and we’re a whole lot more green than we are right now. Pick any one of those, and the business case for NextGen stands on its own. All three together are a slam dunk.

NextGen is a symbol of this administrations commitment to the American people. The President is behind this. In a time of austerity, it says something to all of us that the investment in NextGen is increasing. From where I stand, NextGen is a commitment to investing tax dollars wisely. It’s a commitment to continue to be a leader in aviation innovation. Most of all, it’s a commitment to provide the air transportation system that meets the needs of the American people in the years ahead. The investment is under way, and it needs to stay in high gear. I am confident that’s just what we’re doing.

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