"NextGen and the Future of Aviation"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
June 5, 2013

RTCA Symposium


Thank you, Margaret (Jenny), for that introduction. It is great to be here, and to see so many familiar faces.

I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about how much we’ve accomplished with the roll-out of NextGen. It is crucial to the future of our aviation system, and it is happening with input from important constituents like you.

The road to success is often marked by twists and turns. The budget battles continue, and have thrown us a curveball.

I’m sure you are well aware of the challenges we faced earlier this spring when furloughs caused flight delays. We’ve been given a reprieve from furloughs for the remainder of this fiscal year, and 149 lower activity towers will be kept open through September.

But make no mistake. This ability to move funds from the Airport Improvement Program is not a long-term solution. This is a short-term fix that has only resolved the furlough issue through September.

And, we still need to make more cuts from our budget before September 30. This means we will continue our significant reductions to contracts, training, and travel. Beyond this fiscal year, many uncertainties remain.

We will, however, continue to move forward with our mission of providing a safe and efficient aviation system. It would be easier to carry out our goals with a clear long-term fiscal solution. The sequestration law and continuing resolutions year after year make it more challenging for the continuity of NextGen programs. We ask that Congress find a sustainable long-term solution. We all hope that the sequester is dealt with soon – otherwise, even more cuts may be needed next year.

But, we remain committed to implementing the 21st century aviation system that NextGen brings. And, we do this while integrating components into the airspace that were unheard of just a few decades ago, mainly unmanned systems and commercial space launches.

While we’ve had to shift some of our priorities and alter some of our deployment timeframes in the wake of budget constraints, we’re fully committed to delivering the NextGen capabilities we’ve outlined over the last several years.

With NextGen, a truly more efficient system is evolving for operators, travelers, and other users of the aviation system. We began a short time ago in 2007 with a budget of less than $130 million, and today, our NextGen budget remains around $1 billion per year. This significant expansion represents the increasing urgency to modernize our system.

Just as important as proper funding is effective collaboration. Industry and government must always work together. Working in concert is what truly makes it possible. It can’t be done by government alone, and it can’t be done by industry alone. Crucial to our success is input from stakeholders such as RTCA.

It’s easy to say that we need collaboration, but what is a real example of working together? A great example is the data communications testing we are doing now in Memphis and Newark. In partnership with operators, we are testing data comm in anticipation of a roll out for surface operations in 2016, and for en route operations in 2019. As you know, this will help decrease the amount of voice communications between controllers and pilots, reducing the potential for errors. These tests in Newark and Memphis will help us determine where risks might be in the system, and make improvements before the full program is implemented.

Progress also continues with ADS-B, which supports more precise surveillance, and contributes to reducing delays. Currently, roughly 550 ADS-B ground radio stations have been deployed throughout the U.S. In 2014, the entire U.S. will be covered by over 700 ground radio stations. As even more aircraft equip with ADS-B, we will be able to more fully realize its benefits throughout the National Airspace.

Another cornerstone of NextGen is Performance-Based Navigation. It allows for satellite-based navigation routes and procedures that use GPS to provide precise location information.

PBN routes and instrument procedures enable aircraft to fly more direct paths, providing efficiency and capacity gains. There’s less need for pilot-controller voice communications, reducing the potential for errors. And, PBN helps reduce fuel burn and emissions through more continuous climbs and descents.

Another area where we’re making strides is the expansion of the use of equivalent lateral spacing operations, or ELSO. The precision of NextGen navigation means we can safely allow jets to take off on headings that are slightly closer together. This incremental change has been used in Atlanta, and we’re seeing an increase of 8 to 12 departures per hour. We estimate that this saved customers 700,000 minutes, or 1.3 years, of waiting in line to take-off in Atlanta last year. It’s better for the environment too, because aircraft spend less time on the ground with their engines running. So we’re burning less fuel and decreasing pollution.

We want other major airports to be able to use ELSO, so we are changing our air traffic control handbook, which sets the standards that controllers use to ensure safety and properly separate aircraft. We estimate this change could save airlines about $20 million per year at Atlanta alone.

We also plan to release the NextGen Implementation Plan within the month. We wanted to make sure that everything in the plan lines up with the President’s 2014 budget. It will be available online this year, as we’re trying to reduce printing costs.

While we maintain the biggest airspace in the world, we cannot be fully successful without working hand-in-hand with our foreign counterparts. On the international front, we continue our outreach with many foreign partners and maintain a close relationship with ICAO in an effort to promote global harmonization. Our successes will go no further than our borders without close contact and partnership with other countries. It is crucial that we continue together toward the goal of seamless global operations.

The Global Air Navigation Plan, endorsed by the ICAO Air Navigation Conference last year, provides a framework for countries to improve air traffic capacity according to their own needs and resources. We will revisit this modernization concept at the ICAO Assembly later this year, as we move toward global harmonization and integration.

So, as you can see, we continue to make great strides here at home, and on the international front. And, another great step forward is the fact that we recently named a new Deputy Administrator. I’m so pleased to have Michael Whitaker on board with us.

Mike is no stranger to many of you, having served in many aviation capacities in industry and regulatory circles. His perspective will be valued and important in our decision-making processes. He’ll also serve as our Chief NextGen Officer, a crucial position in the agency.

My only concern with bringing him on board is that we both share the same first name. This will no doubt be confusing to staff at the FAA. But, as a sign of collaboration, we’ve worked out a deal. We’ve decided that he’ll be Mike, and I’ll remain Michael. I know he’ll be a great addition to our team.

Thank you, again, for your invitation to speak with you today.

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