"Made to Stick"
J. Randolph Babbitt, New York
April 21, 2010

Wings Club


Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon, and thank you, Jeff [Knittel], for that kind introduction.

I’ve just finished a book called Made to Stick, and it makes a pretty good point. Good ideas catch on because they’re straightforward, credible and they have a story.

NextGen has these elements. Clearly, the current National Airspace System can’t hold up under the new kinds of technology and demand that are headed our way. If we look around, I think we’d be hard pressed to find another system this big and this critical to the country that still has tethers to the 1950s.

While there is no NextGen to see or touch, the components it’s built from and the benefits of what it produces are quite tangible. If you take a look through the NextGen Implementation Plan we released just last month, you’ll see very clearly that it touches every element from flight planning, push back, taxi and departure all the way to climb and cruise, descent and approach, landing, taxi and arrival. NextGen is changing how we fly. With every milestone we meet those changes are going to get bigger and so are the benefits.

NextGen matches any of a number of technological breakthroughs that are familiar to us. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that NextGen is aviation’s smart phone. Just like the smart phones put lots of things right at your fingertips, NextGen brings together dozens of improvements in airports, avionics and air traffic control. NextGen offers use of GPS, voice and data communications, and internet access through something we call SWIM. These improvements, when bundled together, result in a much more efficient, responsive, “green” airspace system that serves the traveling public and supports our national economy.

The critical benefits that each of these technologies bring make the business case for NextGen obvious. The issue isn’t should you; it’s you can’t afford not to. As the people in this industry know, we have taken steps to make sure that everyone’s on board. We brought in RTCA, the official advisory board for just this kind of task.

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the need for consensus or the job RTCA did to help us get there. Thanks to RTCA, we have a better understanding of what the user wants and needs. We have more insight into the priorities that we need to set. They’ve shown us where to spend, like data sharing and situational awareness for better surface operations. As we move forward and accelerate, we’ve got a clearer picture.

RTCA is the vehicle for consensus, and the work of Task Force 5 shows us that we’ve got to continue to listen to the stakeholders. We will. I’m talking specifically about listening to controllers, pilots, airlines, manufacturers, and so on. We have a readily established conduit that makes sure we’re headed in the right direction, and I intend to keep that line open.

We’re always talking about our focus on satellite navigation and surveillance, but NextGen really starts on the ground. Long before takeoff, our pilots and dispatchers are going to have a much better idea of weather in the system. Operators and traffic managers will have immediate access to identical weather information through one data source. The digital communications that we’ll be using to negotiate user-preferred routes and departure clearances — those are things that are invisible to the cabin, but they are the focus of considerable attention on the flight deck.

NextGen pays close attention to human factors. We want the humans in the loop to leverage the technology to assist them in their jobs whether they are controlling traffic or piloting aircraft. The system is safe, and the technology that we’re talking about lets us capitalize on the tools that can make it even more so. NextGen provides decision support tools to assist controllers in their job — tools that assist in sequencing traffic and tell the controller precisely how far apart aircraft are in close proximity situations and help traffic managers determine how to manage weather situations. And NextGen provides situational awareness — on the surface, in the control tower and in the air; such awareness contributes to the overall safety of the system.

As a pilot, I can tell you that just knowing that tools like Data Comm and ASDE-X are on the airport is a relief. ASDE-X and ADS-B are going to improve situational awareness on the ground and help get rid of blind spots on runways and ramp areas. They’re designed to make everyone on the ground more aware of each other and make runway incursions a thing of the past. Data Comm leap frogs over many of the tangled transmissions we have today. I don’t think that these will ever make the headlines, because they’re invisible to the flying public. They’re designed to eliminate problems before they start.

Likewise, when you strengthen the infrastructure at the airport, it has a ripple effect throughout the system. New runways are planned at Houston, Denver, and Chicago O’Hare. Extensions at Fort Lauderdale, Portland, Atlanta Hartsfield and San Antonio.

When you consider the airfield infrastructure work over the last decade, 21 projects that over the last decade have provided 19 of our busiest airports with the potential to accommodate 1.9 million additional operations annually and reduce delays there by about 5 minutes per flight. Five minutes sounds like a small number until you extrapolate it into fuel costs for a year, or reduced emissions, or maybe it’s just the difference between you making — or missing — your connection. NextGen makes a difference to the people in the industry, but it makes an even bigger difference to passengers back in the cabin.

Now look at something in the air like continuous descent approaches. The traditional step-down is the old historic beginning of descents. I’ve flown them thousands of times, one for every flight actually. Not terribly efficient, but very predictable, but they’re not as quiet as they could be. Optimal approaches allow for a continuous descent path. For the passenger, that means a much smoother ride. The pilot can initiate descent from a high altitude with engines at low power all the way to the final approach.

It’s working. Flight demonstrations at Louisville and testing at Hartsfield have shown fuel savings averaging about 50 to 60 gallons of fuel for the arrival portion of flights and a reduction of as much as 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide per arrival. It also cuts noise through the delayed deployment of flaps and landing gear allowed by the CDA’s gradual reduction in speed.

The traditional step-down descent is like taking the stairs one step at a time. Optimal approaches like CDA are like sliding down the banister.

NextGen is about delivering results now. When you get to departures and arrivals, the wide-spread use of precision navigation tools is already upon us. RNP and RNAV procedures increase capacity and operational efficiency. Partnerships with operators equipped to perform these procedures are yielding the biggest benefits from increases in operational efficiency and reductions in fuel use and emissions.

You know that this is the right move when you see Southwest ponying up 175 million dollars of its own money to invest. They figure that for a single minute of time saved on each flight, the annual savings quickly add up to 156,000 metric tons in emissions per year. And 25 million dollars in fuel savings per year. Seconds count. Dollars turn into millions in a hurry.

Today, 87 percent of commercial operators are equipped to fly RNAV routes and procedures; and 39 percent are equipped to fly the special Aircraft and Aircrew Authorization required approaches that allow design of flight paths to achieve more optimal use of airspace. For the passenger, for the taxpayer, this level of equipage is a clear signal that the industry recognizes that NextGen is a good investment. We’ve approved these kinds of approaches at Atlanta, DFW, Newark, Dulles, LaGuardia, Midway, Miami and San Francisco.

This year, we’ve published 20 special approach procedures for RNP at eight airports, including San Jose, Reagan, Indy and LAX.I’m particularly pleased with the RNP arrivals we’ve put in place in Chicago. We’ll be able to decouple O’Hare and Midway by the end of this year. Chicago is a linchpin for the success of NextGen.

Make no mistake, though, NextGen is not an expensive toy for a select few. The general aviation pilot will benefit from the advancements brought on by NextGen through upgrades in navigation and surveillance. These improvements should result in increased access to the NAS. Some of the access limitations that hindered general aviation in the past will be eliminated. We’re accelerating this progress through new navigation and surveillance capabilities like the Wide Area Augmentation System-enabled LPV approaches and ADS-B.

On the navigation front, we’ve just hit another milestone. The number of GPS-derived approaches now exceeds those published for ILS. As of last month, we’ve published 1,980 WAAS LPV approaches at 1,054 airports. We are adding about 500 more per year. For those of you keeping score, there are 32 thousand WAAS/LPV equipped aircraft flying in the system. The flexibility offered by the WAAS system means that the FAA will be able to keep delivering precision landing capability to even the smallest of airports. With the ground-based ILS, that was only a pipe dream.

We’re also making headway with adding new areas of surveillance. In the Gulf, we’ve installed ADS-B receivers on oil platforms as part of an agreement with Helicopter Association International, oil and natural gas companies and helicopter operators. Now, ADS-B equipped aircraft will receive air traffic services direct to the platform, eliminating the restrictive grid system previously in use. In delivering these services, we’ve opened up about a quarter of a million square miles of new, positively controlled airspace.

NextGen delivers smart new tools that make sense, especially in light of the fact that today’s system won’t hold up against the ops increases that are on the way in the long term. If you’re looking to put the business case into a single sentence:  Our latest estimates show that by 2018, NextGen will reduce total flight delays by better than 20 percent. NextGen will provide $22 billion in cumulative benefits to the traveling public, aircraft operators and the FAA.

But modernizing the system won’t produce all of these benefits if we don’t also commit to more sensible scheduling practices. We shouldn’t invest time, energy and dollars for efficiency gains and delay reductions so that a schedule can be packed beyond what the system can handle; that amounts to two steps forward and three steps back. If you have 20 flights scheduled to take off in a single five-minute window, you’ve just created a bow wave of delays that’s likely going to last all morning, maybe all day. That’s not in the traveling public’s best interest.

When the airport can handle 120 in an hour, and you try to have 80 go in the first 20 minutes, it’s just not going to work. We will have to work better together and the FAA won’t just sit back and be the scapegoat in the future. We truly need additional transparency to the facts behind many of our delays. Too often I hear a Captain announce; “Well, we’re gonna be delayed another 20 minutes until we get a departure slot from the FAA,” when in reality, they’re waiting because their carrier scheduled 26 departures during a five minute window. De-peaking is the answer here. Check the departure boards at our busiest airports, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This is a cooperative effort, and all the parties involved need to take responsibility and find a sensible path forward.

With all of this as context, I think the flying public recognizes the need for NextGen intuitively. Even if they don’t understand how all the technology fits together, that’s OK. They just want to know that we’re getting them where they need to go safely and efficiently. They understand the concept of NextGen. As the years roll by and the efficiency and the safety of the system continue to ratchet up, and the passengers and our environment accumulate the benefits, we’ll see that NextGen is indeed an idea that’s made to stick.

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