"Delivering Efficiency with NextGen"
Michael G. Whitaker, Atlanta, Georgia
June 19, 2014

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Thanks, Vicki (Cox). I’m delighted to be here at AIAA and to have the chance to thank you in person for the leadership you have shown over the years on NextGen – nurturing the program from the ground up.

I think that one basic fact many people do not think about is that NextGen was designed as a 20-year endeavor to completely modernize our Air Traffic Control system, and ultimately, to completely change the way we manage air traffic. It is difficult to convey the scale of the undertaking – changing out the hardware, software and procedures throughout the entire airspace of the United States … all while keeping it running, and running safely.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System is not a program that was meant to be done in three to five years. It has taken the work of many leaders and innovators, over many years, so thank you, Vicki for your legacy.

Laying the foundation for NextGen
We are seeing progress and results from our continued efforts on NextGen. We are finishing some important foundational portions of the program that will allow us to add new capabilities to the system. Those are the capabilities you think of when you think of NextGen: time based metering, DataComm and System Wide Information Management.

This spring we completed the ground infrastructure required for satellite-based surveillance, which is one of the foundations of NextGen. We installed more than 630 transceivers nationwide. The technical name is Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast. And because I’m speaking to a room full of engineers, I’ll simply refer to it as ADS-B from now on.

This is an extremely important milestone in our implementation of NextGen, and I’m proud of the work that has brought us to this point. We now have ADS-B coverage nearly everywhere there is radar coverage. And in some places where there isn’t radar coverage, such as the Gulf of Mexico, mountainous regions of Colorado and low altitude airspace in Alaska.

With ADS-B, controllers get an update of the aircraft position almost continuously, compared to five seconds, or much longer than five seconds, with radar. This improves the precision of our tracking and leads to enhanced safety and greater efficiency.

Transmitting data every second may not sound like a big deal, but it is when you’re talking about the exact location of more than 30,000 commercial flights a day. And it’s important in congested airspace to increase metering to reduce delays.

Right now, controllers at our en route center in Houston are using ADS-B to track air traffic over the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve opened up 250,000 square miles of positively controlled airspace thanks to ADS-B.

ADS-B is more accurate and improves our tools to create more efficiency. It ultimately results in a smoother flow of air traffic. More precise and efficient spacing of aircraft means airlines are in better position to take advantage of fuel-saving NextGen procedures.

The benefits that ADS-B brings are possible because we are close to finishing work on another foundational element of NextGen – upgrades to our air traffic control software at our en route centers and key TRACON facilities.

Our legacy system has been limited by its processing speed, and by the number of radar inputs it could accept. In the terminal environment, some facilities only receive a single input. 

With our new systems, we can process more data, more efficiently, from more sensors. This allows us to fuse radar and ADS-B in our facilities already.  Controllers at the majority of our en route centers now have the ability to see ADS-B targets on their computer screens. 

Let me turn to Houston for a minute, because this city is a great example of where we are seeing a number of NextGen improvements that are really changing our airspace.   

Yesterday, the Secretary of Transportation went to Houston, along with my boss, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, to acknowledge the great work that’s been done with performance based navigation in the Houston metropolitan area.

This is one of our Metroplex projects, where we fast-track changes to the airspace and bring benefits now. We have flipped the switch on 61 new procedures in Houston and already, airlines are able to use fuel-saving optimized profile descents much more frequently.

These procedures allow aircraft to descend to the runway from cruise altitude with engines almost at idle. It saves a lot of fuel because it’s like sliding down the banister rather than walking down the stairway, one stair at a time. A traditional descent requires an aircraft to level off at each new altitude, burning up fuel at each new step. We’ve optimized the departure routes as well to make optimum climbs and shorter routes. These departures also save fuel.

We estimate these procedures will save airlines 3 million gallons of fuel each year and $9.2 million dollars. We also estimate that 31,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide won’t enter our atmosphere.  That’s like taking 6,000 cars off the streets of Houston. NextGen improves efficiency and makes aviation greener.

This project takes into consideration the flight paths into not only the large commercial airports – Intercontinental and Hobby – but also Ellington, David Wayne Hooks Memorial and Sugar Land Regional, and other satellite airports, to make the entire system work better.

We are creating new airways that will relieve bottlenecks, improve safety and foster the flow of commerce. These improvements are happening at more than a dozen major metropolitan areas across the country, not just Houston.

But the great thing about Houston is that this project was on the President’s infrastructure dashboard. We were able to cut through red tape and fast-track permits and environmental reviews to accomplish the work in just two and a half years. And that was notwithstanding the sequester and the government shutdown in October. If we had been able to operate without those restrictions, we would have finished this project in just two years.

The spirit of cooperation is what really moved this NextGen project along. Everyone came to the table and worked together – airlines, pilots, air traffic controllers, airports, and the local community. Everyone had a say. Because of this collaboration, we were able to bring benefits to users in record time.

I’d like to close with some thoughts for the students in the room and for those starting out their careers about what to expect in the next 25 years in the aviation industry.

This is a tricky topic for someone of my generation, because by any measure the last 25-30 years in the aviation business have been anything but smooth! 

I had joined the airline business at the worst possible moment in history, which was 1991, just after Eastern shut down, just as PanAm was shutting down, and I had the foresight to join TWA…..right before its first bankruptcy.

But maybe 1991 wasn’t the low point.  Maybe it was 1981. I was a college student at the time hitch-hiking around Europe – until I got stuck at Heathrow for a week after the President of the United States fired the air traffic controllers. 

Aviation and our country suffered its lowest point after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  Seven years later, the financial collapse and recession of 2008 slowed growth, and aviation went into a holding pattern, and now a period of consolidation. While the country mostly has recovered from the recession, the federal government is facing sequestration,  budget battles and it went through a complete government shutdown!

Bottom line: it has been a very rocky ride. There are no guarantees in this business.

And like most of you here, I wouldn’t trade a career in aviation for anything!

But this leads me to two observations.

One – and maybe all of us in the aviation business are optimist by nature – but the worst may be behind us.  There are several factors that suggest the next 25 years will be much better than the last 25 years.

Two – in a very real sense, we are at a pivotal moment in the industry that feels very much like a generational handoff.  As Administrator Huerta has said, the choices we make today – here in the United States and around the globe – will shape aviation for the decades to come.

I would like to talk briefly about these two things: why I think the next 25 years will be so interesting – interesting in a good way! – and why this is such a pivotal moment.

What will the next 25 years look like? Well, it looks like it will be a good time to be an air traffic controller, or to work for the FAA generally.  This generational handoff shows up in the age of our workforce.  Because many controllers were hired in the ‘80s, there is a wave of retirements coming up.  We plan to bring on approximately 6000 controllers over the next five years. Agency-wide, in fact, there will be a lot of retirements: a third of our workforce will be eligible to retire in the next several years.

The next 25 years also promise to be interesting because of new technologies and users being introduced into the system. Unmanned aircraft – UAS – will have many commercial uses: agriculture, pipeline inspections, construction, media.  Each of these vehicles will have an operator – a pilot – and there will be many jobs created in the design, manufacture, sale and maintenance of these aircraft.

For us, the challenge will be to ensure these operations are conducted safely, and to equitably balance the use of airspace with current users.  We’re working to develop the regulations to accommodate these users.  

Another opportunity – and challenge for us – is the integration of commercial space operations into the system.  The rate of commercial space launches increased six-fold last year over the previous year.  And the last technological challenges are being conquered to allow commercial passenger flights into space.  We are also working on how to integrate these vertical operators into our horizontal system.

So the next 25 years offers a lot of promise, but it also presents us with a lot of challenges. The aviation industry is moving into a new period with lots of change and great opportunities.  Let’s continue to work together – government and industry – in the areas of safety … modernization … and integrating new vehicles.  As we do that, we’ll shape the future of aviation for decades to come, here and around the world.