"Completing NextGen’s Critical Foundation"
Michael G. Whitaker, National Harbor, MD
October 21, 2013

ATCA Conference

Remarks As Prepared For Delivery

Thank you, Pete [Dumont].  I often begin my remarks by saying I’m glad to be here.  Well, this morning, I’m REALLY glad to be here!

As Pete knows, it didn’t look like I would be able to join you today because of the shutdown.  I am glad to talk about NextGen again, after almost three weeks with virtually the entire NextGen organization on furlough.  

As you probably are aware, during this shutdown, the FAA had to focus only on essential functions immediately related to safety.  The system ran – and ran well – with a skeletal staff.  Our operations staff carried out our safety mission, even as they weren’t being paid.  I thank them for their enduring professionalism. 

But all “discretionary” activities – like NextGen, like the aircraft registry, like new aircraft certifications – came to a halt. 

Last week, we brought back more than 12,000 furloughed employees.  Now we will restart NextGen work.

You may also know we have a new Assistant Administrator for NextGen, Major General Ed Bolton.  He was only on the job six days before the government shutdown.  General Bolton is here today and he will be speaking here on Wednesday.  His engineering background and extensive experience managing complex programs with the Air Force will be a huge benefit for the FAA as we resume our work on NextGen.  

In our early conversations, Ed made a point to me that I think is worth reiterating here – and the engineers in the room I think will agree with it.  He said, “NextGen is a complex systems engineering project.  It has a huge number of interdependencies and tight schedules.  We can’t just turn it on or off.  We can’t speed it up or slow it down without ripples through the entire system.” 

General Bolton’s absolutely right. ?Yet, we’ve spent much of the past year looking at various budget scenarios … suspending program efforts during FY'13 furloughs … then determining which ones to restart.  Then planning for FY'14 furloughs.  Then navigating the shutdown.  And now reopening with a budget that carries only to January 15 – less than three months from now.

And unless the sequester is permanently fixed, we’re going to deal with this issue through the remainder of the fiscal year.  And then again in FY'15.

This is not a sustainable course of action.  It’s no way to run a business … and it’s no way to run a government.

NextGen is the most transformative infrastructure project currently under way in the United States.  It’s why I’m here.  It’s why General Bolten is here.  We know its success is crucial to enable the growth and change in aviation and make us more competitive in the global economy. 

We remain committed to its full implementation AS IS.  It doesn’t need to be reset.  It needs to be implemented, and we need a budget to do that.  A project of this complexity will not succeed if we don’t have consistent, budget certainty.   

Having said all that … the good news is we are getting close to completing NextGen’s critical foundation.  This foundation includes a much-needed 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, ATOP.  Much of this work has been disrupted by the sequester, furloughs and now the shutdown … and we’re evaluating the budget impact on programs through January 15th.  But in broad terms, these important upgrades are in the final stages.  Let me give you a quick overview of where these programs are.   

  • ERAM—we are in the final stages of upgrading the computer system that has been running our nation’s high altitude airspace system.  This upgrade program provides the platform for many future NextGen technologies and will increase the capacity and efficiency of the system.  To date, 17 of our 20 en-route centers have been upgraded.  
  • TAMR—We have also made progress upgrading the computer systems that run our nation’s approach radar airspace.  This program will provide a common platform for terminal automation.  This is a massive project that requires switching out computer processors, screens and software, and re-training controllers in over 150 TRACONS—all without disrupting air traffic service.
  • ATOP—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.
  • ADS-B—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.  That enhances safety and saves operators time, fuel and money.  We’ll complete the nationwide deployment of ground transceivers by next year. 

All of this software, hardware and equipment form the foundation of NextGen.  

I like to use the metaphor of the iPad.  We are building a new platform on which we will be able to run new “apps” – new air traffic capabilities.  Some of these capabilities – such as Time Based Flow Management, or TBFM, have already been rolled out.  Others – Data Communications and the NAS Voice System, for example, are in the testing phase.  And still others are in the research pipeline at our Tech Center in New Jersey, which will ultimately enable us to operate a 4D trajectory system.

Many of the benefits of NextGen will be realized after the foundational work is complete and new capabilities are added.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to work to deliver benefits to current users, leveraging technologies such as …

  • Performance Based Navigation—which enables aircraft to use more direct routings, saving fuel and time. 
  • And Optimized Profile Descent—which enables aircraft to reduce engine power and virtually glide down to the runway, a procedure that uses less fuel and requires less tower-to-cockpit communication. 
  • NextGen procedures are being used today in cities like Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, and Washington DC, and we will continue to roll out these procedures more widely throughout the country. 

In conclusion, we remain committed to NextGen, and to our partnerships with operators, local communities, unions, airports … and certainly with industry, in implementing this important program.     

But we can’t keep taking one step forward, followed by a half step back.  Our ability to invest in NextGen and other modernization efforts depends on having greater fiscal certainty, this year, and beyond.  With fiscal certainty, we can deliver benefits in a timelier manner.  In doing so, we’ll have a more efficient, greener air transportation system – one that continues to be a model for the world.