"NextGen: Sharing Information, Seeing the Big Picture"
Michael Huerta, National Harbor, Md
October 1, 2012

Air Traffic Control Association - ATCA 57th Annual Conference and Exposition


Thank you, Monte (Belger, Chairman, ATCA Board of Directors) for that introduction. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this conference. The people and organizations represented here today are working to make significant contributions that will change the future of aviation.

You will influence how aviation will look and sound, the routes we fly, and how passengers will experience travel in decades to come.

We are working during a pivotal time in aviation history. Technology is driving a transformation in how we control and manage air traffic. This transformation to NextGen will be dominated by interdependence, and it will come about because of collaboration.

NextGen runs on a philosophy that’s different from the way we have been handling air traffic for the last 50 years. NextGen is about greater sharing of data and information.

The entire aviation community will have the same information – air traffic controllers, pilots, airline dispatch offices, ramp operations and many others. We will all see the same thing.

NextGen is not about compartmentalized sectors thinking about their piece of the puzzle. It is about holistic thinking – seeing all the moving parts and having greater situational awareness in the air and on the ground. As one of our FAA technical advisers likes to say, “Information is the coin of the realm in NextGen.”

This greater awareness leads to enhanced safety and efficiency, which benefits everyone.

Our challenge as an agency, and as an industry, is to focus on delivering the benefits of NextGen to the traveling public now. There are three or four examples that come to mind of new technologies that are part of NextGen or that enable NextGen where we have really made progress. We are truly changing the way we deliver and the way we share data. This will open up many opportunities for innovative companies. The marketplace will undoubtedly come up with new products and capabilities that we can only imagine today.

The technologies that I want to touch on today are Data Communications, En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B and SWIM, which stands for System Wide Information Management. All of these technologies are about sharing and using information more effectively.

Communication between air traffic controllers and pilots is a core element of air traffic control and one that we can improve.

Under the current system, any change to a departure clearance within 30 minutes of push back must be done by a controller talking on the radio. Bad weather can complicate this – and clearances can change many times for multiple aircraft. This can cause major departure delays.

If air traffic controllers can send a revised departure clearance in written form at any point before take-off, it would significantly reduce the amount of time needed to issue these clearances.

Last month we awarded a $330 million contract to deploy Data Comm in dozens of air traffic control towers in the next six years. Later we plan to deploy it in en route centers that manage high altitude traffic.

To facilitate the roll out of Data Comm, we plan to validate the system’s capabilities at three air traffic control towers around the country in a pilot program. We’ll test in Memphis with FedEx, and later in Newark with United, and in Atlanta with Delta.

DataComm will provide a two-way data exchange between controllers and flight crews. It will supplement but not entirely replace voice communication on the radio. And it will not only help with departure clearances, but also with instructions, advisories, flight crew requests and reports.

Data Comm will enhance air traffic safety by allowing controllers to give more timely and effective clearances. The delivery of messages will be more reliable and will reduce the risk of incidents associated with voice communications.

Data Comm is just one part of the big NextGen picture. But, it shows the relevance and importance of interconnecting technologies. It also shows how important it is to work together as operators, regulators, unions, and airports.

Collaboration is key to making NextGen a reality now.

We have learned lessons from the past regarding our large acquisition programs and we have developed best practices moving forward.

We have elevated and strengthened our NextGen organization, and we have created a new Program Management Organization specifically focused on implementing major technology programs, such as ERAM. This will strengthen and improve the coordination among NextGen initiatives, ushering them from the drawing board to live operation.

This new approach, as well as our improved working relationship with our unions, is already showing results. ERAM is operating at nine en route centers around the country. That’s nearly half of the 20 centers where we plan to use it.

And six centers are using ERAM continuously as the primary technology to direct air traffic. This sets the stage for better use of more NextGen capabilities, such as ADS-B.

We’re already controlling traffic in the Gulf of Mexico using ADS-B, where it’s providing benefits to helicopter operators there. ERAM will allow greater use of ADS-B nationwide.

In addition, we’re testing ADS-B technology in Boston on vehicles at the airport to improve runway safety. Some vehicles will have an iPad that receives a surface surveillance picture like the ADSE-X display that is available to air traffic controllers.

Controllers, pilots and vehicle operators – when using the right equipment – will see the same picture of the airport surface. This will reduce the potential for runway conflicts. NextGen is moving us to the day when everyone will be on the same page.

We are moving in the direction of broadening our communication and sharing data more easily.

Let me turn to SWIM for a moment. System Wide Information Management is a system that is going to make the sharing of data much, much easier, without requiring that stakeholders develop custom applications.

We want to make FAA surface movement information from all airports available to our stakeholders in one-stop shopping. We also want to make weather information available. SWIM will help if you want to know what the departure line looks like at an airport, or if you want to see delays or know if weather is impacting operations. No longer will an airline need to contact dozens of places to draw down surface movement information and weather from various airports.

You know, I come from a background of implementing transportation technology solutions and the thought of that happening all over the country right now just makes my head hurt.

SWIM will make this information available in a much easier way to approved and vetted users. You will be able to go to one place and get the surface movement information for all airports. Some companies are already using this.

That’s what we mean when we say that NextGen enables the broad sharing of information and that everyone will have access and be on the same page. And NextGen opens up opportunities for companies to create new products using this data – applications that we have not even thought of yet.

We will make other FAA data available as time goes on, but these are areas where information is available today.

Our job at the FAA is first and foremost to enhance safety in every way we can. But we also want to work with you and all aviation stakeholders to continually foster innovation and improve our processes.

NextGen is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, and the President’s budget for 2013 requests more than $1 billion for NextGen – an increase of 11 percent over last year.

The entire FAA budget request for 2013 is $15.2 billion. Of course we will have to work within whatever budget Congress eventually passes for our agency. And Congress did recently enact the FY 2013 Continuing Resolution bill to provide funding for the FAA and all government operations through March 27th.

Under the continuing resolution, the FAA receives about $77 million more compared to last year. Still, certain areas are between 3 and 6 percent lower than what we asked for in the 2013 budget, which means we will have to tweak our plans.

The bottom line is, we are operating in an environment of tight budgets and it is also a time of uncertainty. The sequester is an issue on everyone’s mind.

If the sequester were to occur, we would face some very drastic cuts in services and these investments. These cuts would impact air traffic control services, NextGen implementation, and aircraft certification – all of which are critical to our ability to move forward with aviation in this century. They would result in significantly less efficient and less convenient air travel service for the American traveling public. We will always, however, maintain the highest levels of safety.

It’s important that Congress works together to avoid the sequestration, and we are hopeful that they will do so.

Even as we face a challenging budget climate, the FAA is committed to modernizing the airspace system as well as maintaining the equipment that makes our system run today.

President Obama said it well when he said,

“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation … is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

It’s a good perspective to keep in mind as we keep our eyes on the important goal of transforming our national airspace system.

We all know that the FAA cannot implement NextGen in a vacuum. This is a public-private partnership. Aviation has always been about innovation and it has always been about collaboration.

The decisions we all make over the next several years are going to affect the air transportation system in this country for decades to come. That’s why it is critical that the FAA, other government agencies, and all the components of the aviation industry work together innovatively as we lay the foundation for the future. With the right investments and a strong partnership with all of you, we can prepare our aviation system for the challenges ahead.

Thank you.

###