"NextGen Ahead"
Michael G. Whitaker, Washington, DC
September 10, 2013

AvWeek Air Transportation Modernization Conference

Thank you, Ed (Hazelwood), for that introduction.  I am pleased to be here today with such an accomplished group of aviation professionals discussing such an important subject. 

I want to talk this morning about the progress we have made in recent years in implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System.  NextGen, as you know, is one of the largest infrastructure development projects currently underway in the United States, and I would argue, the most important.  Even though much of it seems like invisible infrastructure, it is a crucial advancement for our aviation system.  We have made tremendous strides building the NextGen system, and will continue to do so.  We must continue to move forward with its development.  Its success is crucial to build and sustain our nation’s aviation system and make us more competitive in the global economy.

The early phase of NextGen has been focused on a much-needed upgrade of the basic infrastructure that runs our airspace – moving us from a ground-based radar system to a satellite-based system.  This has included an upgrade of the basic hardware and software systems that allow us to control the airspace.  These are programs you’re familiar with—ERAM, TAMR, ADS-B, ATOPS.  To update you:

  • Starting with ERAM—we are in the final stages of upgrading our 1980s-era computer system that has been running our nation’s high altitude airspace system with a much more sophisticated program.  This program – ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization) – will provide benefits for users and the flying public by increasing capacity and efficiency, as well as allowing us to build new capabilities into the system.  Sixteen of our 20 en-route centers have been upgraded.  The remaining four will be completed by the end of 2014.
  • We have also made progress upgrading the old computer systems that runs our nation’s approach radar airspace.  This program, Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement, or TAMR, will increase efficiency by combining and upgrading several air traffic control technologies into one single system.  This is a massive project that requires switching out the computer processors, screens and software, and re-training controllers in over 150 TRACONS—all without disrupting service.  That program will be substantially complete in 2016.
  • We have already completed the upgrade of our oceanic centers in New York, California and Alaska – with the program known as Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures, or ATOP.  This technology allows us to benefit from the efficiency of NextGen in controlling 24 million square miles of oceanic airspace.
  • And finally we have installed more than 70 percent of the ground transceivers across the country for Automatic-Dependent Surveillance Broadcast.  ADS-B will transmit aircraft location to controllers and other ADS-B equipped aircraft with a dramatically faster update than radar – in essence, taking us from 2D to 3D awareness of aircraft location.  That enhances safety and saves operators and passengers time, fuel and money.  That program will be complete next year. 

All of this software, hardware and equipment form the foundation of NextGen. You could liken it to building an iPad.  This first phase of the NextGen program – replacing and upgrading the hardware, software and systems that run our airspace – gives us the ability to add new capabilities and technologies going forward.  This foundation allows us to add apps to the iPad. 

For example, one of these apps or capabilities is Time Based Flow Management, or TBFM.  TBFM allows the more efficient en-route spacing of aircraft.  It will help us line up planes in such a way that more aircraft can take advantage of the benefits of new NextGen procedures as they enter congested airspace.  

In addition to building this new foundational infrastructure, we are building new procedures that allow users to take advantage of new technologies.

Building these new procedures is at the core of delivering the benefits of NextGen to the system users.   

Right now, we have several programs underway to build more efficient routing procedures for NextGen-equipped aircraft.  These procedures, known as PBN or Performance-Based Navigation, use this technology plus the precision of GPS to create more efficient approaches into and out of our airports and allow aircraft to operate more direct routings, reducing the noise footprint and saving fuel and time.  For example, new descent procedures allow aircraft to reduce engine power and virtually glide down to the runway, like sliding down the bannister, rather than today’s typical descent, which uses more fuel by requiring the pilot to level off at each stage.  These NextGen procedures save time, burn less fuel, produce fewer emissions, and reduce noise, and they are being deployed today.  Examples include:

  • At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, we have developed and now use four of these approaches.  The total cost savings by two air carriers there is estimated at $6.4 million per year. 
  • In Seattle, as part of the FAA’s Greener Skies initiative, airlines are using NextGen precision routes to shave four to eight minutes off flight times, providing projected annual savings of more than $13 million.  Going forward, this new technology will allow us to build new capabilities that will enhance both safety and efficiency as PBN routes are rolled out elsewhere.
  • In Atlanta, we added departure routes that safely allow jets to take off on headings that are slightly closer together.  This small change has resulted in a 10 percent increase in departures per hour from the world’s busiest airport.  We estimate customers saved more than 11,000 hours of waiting in line to take off last year thanks to this new procedure.  We expect these improvements will save the airlines $20 million in Atlanta on an annual basis.  And we intend to bring this type of efficiency to other major airports.

One of the most exciting new capabilities we have underway is Data Comm.  As we complete the basic infrastructure of NextGen, we can look forward to many new capabilities and procedures.   

Data Comm allows us to communicate through written instructions to pilots, which reduces the possible “read-back, hear-back” errors of radio communications.  More importantly, Data Comm allows us to communicate highly complex clearances that are not practical to convey over the radio – instructions that can be automatically loaded into the aircraft’s flight management system.  This will ultimately save operators and passengers time and money, and will vastly improve the flexibility and efficiency of our operations.

As we develop these new technologies, it is also important that we create a seamless airspace between the United States and the rest of the world.  To that end, I’m pleased that the United States and Europe were able to reach an agreement in principle last month on standards for Data Comm.  

The final standard will ensure that both the United States and Europe will build their systems so that they will be able to handle the same set of tasks.

This standard will:

  • Allow for more advanced communication regarding the use of satellite-based procedures, such as RNP or Required Navigation Performance, which will provide more flexibility to use NextGen routes.
  • It will allow controllers to convey detailed information to pilots about the wind conditions along the path they are scheduled to fly.
  • And it would address aircraft spacing.  For example, it could provide the type of complex clearance that would be required for an aircraft to establish and manage the appropriate spacing in relation to other aircraft.

In every case, the new standard will enable Data Comm to provide more complex information than can be provided via voice communications today.  We will all benefit from the increased efficiency and safety of Data Comm and from a seamless system based on one set of common capabilities.

Reaching a consensus with our European partners on Data Comm highlights the importance of harmonized standards in today’s world.  We continue our outreach with many international partners, and we 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. 

In this regard, we are in full support of ICAO’s plans for modernization, including the Global Air Navigation Plan, which 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 in a few weeks, as we move toward global harmonization and integration.        

In conclusion, the FAA remains committed to NextGen and the benefits it will deliver.  Our partnerships with operators, local communities, unions, aviation groups, and airports are already making NextGen a success, but there is much more to come. 

Of course, our ability to make future infrastructure investments, such as NextGen, depends on stable funding for the FAA for the next fiscal year and beyond. 

The President has called on Congress to replace the damaging budget cuts imposed by the sequester with a balanced approach.  His plan reduces the deficit while protecting critical priorities like infrastructure investment and funding for education.   

I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today on the progress we’ve made building NextGen and the successes we’ve already seen.    

This modernization is necessary not only for current users of our aviation system, but also for future generations.  We owe it to them to create a more efficient, sustainable transportation system that can serve us well throughout the 21st century and beyond. 

Thanks again for the invitation to speak to you today.