"NextGen: Transforming our National Airspace System into the Next Century of Flight"
Michael Huerta, Nashville, Tennessee
January 10, 2012

New Horizons Forum


Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here in Nashville with all of you today.

This is truly a pivotal time in aviation history.We are moving into the Next Generation air transportation system, or NextGen – transforming from the ground-based navigation of the last century to the satellite-based navigation of tomorrow.

We are also moving towards an aviation system that will be safer, more efficient and environmentally sustainable – with more direct routes, fewer delays and more predictability.

It’s not just the United States. The entire world is changing the way it handles air traffic.

Now, we know that in order to meet the challenges of transforming our air traffic control system in the next 15 years, the FAA as an organization must also evolve.

Our agency grew around 1950s-era technology and software systems. And, I might add that these systems are extremely safe and work very well. 

During that same time period, the computing power of a mainframe that took up an entire room now fits in a light-weight tablet. Cameras have evolved from film to digital. And the number of Web sites has grown exponentially from hundreds in the early 1990s to hundreds of millions today.

Likewise, we need to transform our system for managing air traffic too; NextGen is the way of the future. We cannot afford to be left behind, and it’s important that all of us embrace this process.

In many ways, the FAA is at a tipping point where we have a lot of things happening at once.

We have the immense technological change of NextGen on the one hand, and we have a generational change in our workforce on the other.

Change of this magnitude is not easy, but it is a unique and exciting opportunity for all of us. We are facing a whole new way of thinking and operating. And we are positioning ourselves with stretch goals to meet these challenges in the months and years ahead.

We have taken a good long look in the mirror and we know we need to make certain changes that will serve as the foundation for our success in years ahead. 

We’re focused on streamlining shared services within the FAA to avoid duplication and increase efficiency.  We’re studying our current governance model to ensure we’re prepared to manage issues across the FAA as effectively as possible.  And ultimately, what we do comes down to people, 47,000 FAA employees. That’s why we’re also updating our human resources model to ensure we are attracting and retaining top-notch talent across the board. 

As I talk about the FAA’s strongest asset, its people, let me briefly describe the changes that are taking place in our workforce, in terms of generations, to illustrate the degree of change we are undergoing as an agency.

We are going from baby boomers to GenXers and Millennials in air traffic control and other areas.

The FAA hired a substantial number of controllers in the years immediately following the 1981 air traffic controllers strike. Those workers are now coming to the age where they are ready to retire.

Last year, about 18 percent of the air traffic controller workforce was eligible to retire. And we estimate that we’ll need to hire about 1,000 controllers per year for the next 10 years.

Already in the last five years, we’ve hired more than 7,800 controllers.

The percentages for potential turnover are even more pronounced in other areas of the agency.

Let’s talk about aviation safety inspectors. About 47 percent of aviation safety inspectors will be eligible for retirement within the next five years. And about 41 percent of our acquisitions workforce will be eligible as well as 31 percent of the agency’s engineers.  

I know many of you have studied engineering, science and math – or you are in school now – so let me tell you – all of those skills are a good fit for those jobs and the needs we have at FAA.

People are our strength, and we need a workforce that has, above all, a core commitment to safety and professionalism. But we also need to make sure we have people with the skills and talents needed for the NextGen air traffic system.

It turns out that what has been an ongoing and profound change in the FAA workforce has a positive side in terms of moving the workforce towards embracing new technology.

We have noticed that the Millennial workers have a very different orientation to technology. They are much more comfortable with all kinds of technology and they are demanding that we use it.

Rather than being nervous about new technology, they are anxious for the next upgrade. They are waiting in line for the iPhone 2 and 3 and 4 and 4S.

These new workers don’t want to be handed a memo at work, they want to receive it automatically on their phones. And we’re listening and changing. Several months ago we released MyFAA Mobile – which makes basic information from the FAA employee Web site completely available to employees.

And just yesterday, we took another step. We released a mobile phone optimized version of FAA.gov which provides much of the most popular information and services that pilots and industry stakeholders and the public at large are looking for. This will make all kinds of public FAA information easily accessible.

To continue our transformation, the FAA is working with many partners to develop and foster a workforce that is schooled in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math.

This is not a matter of focusing on high schools or junior colleges. To do this, we must reach down into middle school and start fostering the kind of attention on STEM disciplines early on.

There’s both a huge demand and a huge shortage for these kinds of skills in the United States.

I am very proud of our partnership with AIAA in this effort. And I thank you for your support. We rely upon you to help us meet the challenges we face in this area.

To promote STEM education, we are mentoring teachers and working with others to hold boot camps for educators. We encourage teachers to give their lessons with an aeronautical twist. For example, when we teach the laws of Sir Isaac Newton, we ask them to consider using the four forces of flight as an example – lift, weight, thrust and drag.

If they are going to talk about navigation, we ask, why not use a visual flight rules sectional chart to teach the lesson rather than the typical road atlas? 

There’s a myth that aeronautics is so difficult that the average teacher can’t handle it, and we want to bust that myth.

Our partner in this effort, NASA, has developed an “app” for that.

We will be assisting with the launch this month of the “app” called Smart Skies, which teaches children basic algebra through a simple air traffic control simulation.

Instead of playing “Angry Birds,” they can play air traffic control.  

This is an ongoing effort and we very much appreciate the partnership with AIAA, the Air Force, NASA and others to continue to foster aerospace and astronautic education.  It’s in everyone’s interest to support STEM.

And now I want to turn your attention to another issue that really does deserve everyone’s support, and that is the upcoming reauthorization of the FAA.

The FAA’s current spending authority expires on January 31. We have now had more than 20 extensions. We need an FAA reauthorization bill in order to give the taxpayers and the traveling public the aviation system this country deserves. When Congress returns to work later this month, the House will have only six days in session before this important legislative work needs to be accomplished.

This is something that is of extreme importance for the nation’s economy.  Civil aviation contributes $1.3 trillion to our economy and generates more than 10 million jobs. And NextGen is vital to protecting these contributions. The current system simply cannot accommodate anticipated growth.

In closing, I want to give you an update on a great NextGen project we kicked off in Houston yesterday.

We talk about NextGen as something in the future. But there are many benefits of satellite-based navigation that we are deploying right now.

Andin the Houston metro area we are creating NextGen solutions at two major airports and the surrounding airspace. These are part of President Obama’s effort to fast-track needed infrastructure projects to help the economy and spur growth.

The FAA is creating Performance Based Navigation procedures, along with environmentally friendly Optimized Profile Descents, which allow aircraft to make managed descents at reduced engine power settings, thus saving fuel and generating fewer emissions. 

These are part of the “invisible,” but very real infrastructure of our aerospace system.

Yesterday we had our version of a groundbreaking on these important infrastructure projects.

These changes are forecast to save millions of dollars in fuel per year and also cut greenhouse gas emissions by thousands of tons.

We expect these “green” procedures to be completed in the next two years.

To do this, we are streamlining our process for environmental studies.  And this streamlining is going to save a lot of time.

Rather than designing and engineering a set of procedures and working until all the “I”s are dotted before sending it over for environmental review – we are doing much of the preliminary environmental work concurrently with the design process.

This way we are able to identify and mitigate environmental issues earlier in the process.

We expect to shave a year off the process this way, and make these NextGen solutions available all the more quickly by doing this kind of workflow change.

That is what is happening in Houston and we hope it will serve as a model for other metro areas around the country as we redesign airspace nationwide.

This is just one example of the improvements we’ll see through NextGen. 

As we move forward, our goal is to reach the next level of safety and prepare our workforce for the future. This is a very exciting time in aviation. Together we are creating the template for a new system.  I appreciate your help, your energy and your bright ideas as we embark on the next century of flight. 

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