October 5, 2011

Statement of Michael Huerta, Deputy Administrator


Chairman Petri, Congressman Costello, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the benefits of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.   This is my first appearance before this Committee since starting at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and I am pleased to have the opportunity to get to know you all.

We recognize that we need to change the FAA internally to best serve the future needs of our nation’s air transportation system. This means realigning some functions in order to better handle the enormous transformation to NextGen. Congress approved the reprogramming request we submitted this summer to change our reporting structure and implement other organizational changes. This is a critical step in moving forward with the changes that will lay the foundation for our success as an agency in the next 15 years.

The reprogramming approval allows us to create a NextGen office that will report to me. It also allows us to create an Assistant Administrator for NextGen. I’m very pleased that Vicki Cox is serving in this position. Together, we are setting the strategic direction for NextGen and continuing to raise NextGen’s profile within the FAA and within the aviation community. While much of NextGen involves the air traffic control function, it also involves much more than that and needs the involvement and focus of every FAA office going forward.

We have also established the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), a broad-based, senior-level advisory panel to which we turn for expertise and guidance. One of the first actions we requested of this new committee is to form a working group to develop recommendations on outcome-based performance metrics for NextGen. We look forward to the NAC’s involvement in bringing all of the stakeholders together.

NextGen Defined

NextGen is a comprehensive overhaul of our National Airspace System (NAS) to make air travel more convenient and dependable, while ensuring your flight is as safe and efficient as possible. In a continuous roll-out of improvements and upgrades, the FAA is building the capability to guide and track air traffic more precisely and efficiently to save fuel and reduce noise and pollution. NextGen is a better way of doing business – for the FAA, the airlines, the airports, and the traveling public. It’s better for our environment, better for efficiency and flexibility, better for safety, and better for the economy and the traveling public.

As recently as 2009, civil aviation contributed $1.3 trillion annually to the national economy, and constituted 5.2 percent of the gross domestic product according to FAA’s recent report on the economic impact of civil aviation. It generated more than 10 million jobs, with earnings of $397 billion. NextGen is vital to protecting those contributions. The current system simply cannot accommodate anticipated growth in the aviation industry. Congestion continues to increase at many of our nation’s busiest hub airports, a problem that will only be exacerbated now that traffic levels are starting to rebound from the impact of the economic recession.

Between 2007 and 2011, approximately $2.8 billion has been appropriated for NextGen. We estimate the development of NextGen will require between $20 and $27 billion in FAA funding from 2012 to 2025. And just last month, the President requested $1 billion in the American Jobs Act for Next Gen to support applied research, advance development, and implementation of engineering solutions for NextGen technologies, applications and procedures.      

What are we getting for our money? Our latest estimates show that by 2018, we will recoup our investment and NextGen air traffic management improvements will reduce total delays, in flight and on the ground, about 35 percent, compared with what would happen if we did nothing. The delay reduction will provide $23 billion in cumulative benefits through 2018 to aircraft operators, the traveling public, and the FAA. We will save about 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel during this period, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons.

Let me highlight some examples of where NextGen is already improving safety and adding real dollars to the bottom line:

  • Using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a GPS-based technology, aircraft are able to fly more safely and efficiently in previously challenging areas. ADS-B equipped helicopters flying over the Gulf of Mexico are benefiting from radar-like air traffic services for the first time. ADS-B radio stations deployed along the shoreline and on oil platforms blanket the area with air traffic surveillance, increasing the safety of all operations. This same surveillance improves efficiency in the Gulf through more direct routing of ADS-B equipped helicopters, reducing both their operating cost and environmental impact. In Colorado, new surveillance technologies are enabling controllers to track aircraft flying through challenging mountainous terrain. Currently, over half of the ADS-B ground infrastructure has been deployed.
  • Southwest Airlines started using GPS-based Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches at a dozen airports this year. The airline says that it could save $25 for each mile they save by using a shorter route.   
  • Alaska Airlines has been a leader in using RNP approach procedures at Juneau International Airport. They can fly precisely through mountainous terrain in low visibility conditions thanks to the higher navigational accuracy of GPS. The airline estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights last year into Juneau alone due to bad weather if it were not for the GPS-based RNP approaches.
  • In Atlanta, Delta Airlines reports saving 60 gallons of fuel per flight by using more efficient descent procedures we have designed under NextGen. Aircraft descend continually to the runway with engines idle, as opposed to descending in a stair-step fashion and using the engines and burning fuel to power up at each level-off point.
  • UPS, with the help of the FAA, is equipping its fleet with NextGen technology to help save time and money as pilots transport goods in and out of their hub. UPS estimates that it will save between 25% and 30% in fuel burn on arrival.
  • We have conducted Initial Tailored Arrival (ITA) flight demonstrations, at San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami.   ITAs are pre-negotiated arrival path through airspace of multiple air traffic control facilities; they limit vectoring and minimize the time the aircraft spends maintaining level flight during its descent. ITAs differ from other types of Optimized Profile Descents (OPDs) in that they are assigned by controllers to specific approaches and tailored to the characteristics of a limited number of FANS-equipped aircraft types – 747s, 777s, A330s, A340s and A380s. We estimate that the 747s saved an average of 176 gallons of fuel per arrival in ITAs and 78 gallons per flight in partial ITAs, compared with conventional approaches. For 777s, the corresponding savings were 99 gallons in full ITAs and 43 gallons in partial ITAs.

We anticipate seeing other benefits shortly. The “Greener Skies over Seattle” initiative should save literally millions of gallons of fuel annually, cut noise and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The FAA estimates that airlines using RNP procedures at Seattle Tacoma International Airport will save several millions of dollars per year at today’s fuel prices. And that number is only going to get larger as more airlines equip. With the “Greener Skies over Seattle” initiative, aircraft will emit less carbon dioxide – about 22,000 metric tons less per year. That’s like taking more than 4,000 cars off the streets of the Seattle region.   

These are just a few of the benefits that we are seeing already from our investments. But, we cannot afford to be short-sighted.   A true transformation in the way we deliver air traffic services takes planning and time. Let me now turn to a discussion of some of the longer-range benefits.   

NextGen Benefits:   Safety

NextGen operational capabilities will make the NAS safer. ADS-B improvements in situational awareness – on the ground and in aircraft – will increase controllers’ and pilots’ individual and combined ability to avoid potential danger.   Among other benefits, this could provide valuable time savings in search and rescue efforts.  Appropriately equipped aircraft will be able to receive information displayed directly to the flight deck information about nearby traffic, weather, and flight-restricted areas.

More precise tracking and information-sharing will improve the situational awareness of pilots, enabling them to plan and carry out safe operations in ways they cannot do today. Air traffic controllers will become more effective guardians of safety through automation and simplification of their most routine tasks, coupled with better awareness of conditions in the airspace they control.   Additionally, NextGen will facilitate the implementation of Safety Management System processes for the air traffic controllers' use.

Advances in tracking and managing operations on airport surfaces will make runway incursions less likely. Fusing surface radar coverage from Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X (ASDE-X) with ADS-B surveillance of aircraft and ground vehicles will increase situational awareness, particularly when linked with runway status lights. Collaborative decision making will increase everyone’s understanding of what others are doing.

Starting with pre-takeoff advisories, departure instructions and reroutes for pilots, we will use data messages increasingly instead of voice communications between pilots and controllers, reducing opportunities for error or misunderstanding. Voice channels will be preserved for the most critical information exchange.

NextGen Benefits:   Environmental

As with safety, our work to enhance aviation’s influence on the environment also benefits – and is a beneficiary of – NextGen. The operational improvements that reduce noise, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions from aircraft are the tip of the FAA’s environmental iceberg. Equally important are the other four-fifths of the agency’s environmental approach – aircraft and engine technology advances, sustainable fuels, policy initiatives and advances in science and modeling.

Environmental benefits of operational improvements are simple and direct. When we improve efficiency in the NAS, most of the time we save time and fuel. Burning less fuel produces less carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions. Some of our NextGen improvements, notably landing approaches in which aircraft spend less time maintaining level flight and thus can operate with engines at idle, reduce ground noise too. But operational benefits go only so far; their net system-wide effect can be offset by growth of the aviation system.

To accommodate system growth, we are supporting development of aircraft, engine and fuel technology. In 2009, we established the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise program to bring promising new airframe and engine technologies to maturity, ready to be applied to commercial designs, within five to eight years. Similarly, we are part of a government-industry initiative, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, to develop sustainable low-emission alternative fuels and bring them to market.

We have developed and are using the NextGen Environmental Management System (EMS) to integrate environmental protection objectives into NextGen planning and operations. The EMS provides a structured approach for managing our responsibilities to improve environmental performance and stewardship. We also are analyzing the effect on aviation environmental policy and standards, and of market-based measures, including cap-and-trade proposals.

NextGen Benefits:   Airports

Many airports will benefit from substantial improvements in efficiency, access, surveillance, environment and safety. Surveillance, situational awareness and safety will improve at airports with air traffic control radar services as we deploy ADS-B ground stations across the NAS and update our automation systems, and as operators equip their aircraft for it. The FAA also plans to publish Wide Area Augmentation System Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance approach procedures for all suitable runway ends by 2016.

We are making important progress on a number of efforts to show how better situational awareness and pacing on the ground will give operators and the traveling public more reliability and save them time, while also managing environmental impacts. We can cut fuel consumption and emissions by reducing the time and number of aircraft idling on taxiways waiting for takeoff, or for open gate slots upon arrival. Also, we can reduce equipment wear – stop-and-go accelerations are hard on engines and other parts, and they also emit significant additional amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A major success in 2010 was the minimal disruption that occurred during a four-month runway resurfacing and widening project in one of the nation’s busiest airspaces. The longest runway at New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) had to be expanded to accommodate new, larger aircraft. The project also included taxiway improvements and construction of holding pads. To minimize disruption during construction, JFK’s operators turned to a collaborative effort using departure queue metering, in which each departing aircraft from JFK’s many airlines was allocated a precise departure slot and waited for it at the gate rather than congesting taxiways. The procedure limited delays so well, it was extended after the runway work was completed.

NextGen Benefits:   Flight Operations

All aircraft operators in the NAS will benefit from two major categories of improvements – efficiency and capacity, and access. Much of the time, efficiency and capacity go together. When we reduce the distance needed for the safe separation of aircraft, reduce delays from weather and other disruptions, and increase flight-path and procedures options for controllers as they maintain the flow of traffic, we improve capacity as well. Surface initiatives make important contributions across the board – they improve situational awareness and safety, they reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions and they reduce tarmac delays. By improving the efficiency of surface operations, they increase capacity.

Access issues center on runways at major airports, affecting mainly airlines, and airports and airspace that lack radar coverage, a problem for general aviation. NextGen will improve efficiency in operations that involve closely spaced parallel runways and converging and intersecting runways. Area Navigation and Required Navigation Performance (RNAV/RNP) will improve efficiency and capacity in departures and approaches. For general aviation, ADS-B will enable controllers to track properly equipped aircraft in non-radar areas covered by ADS-B ground stations. General aviation operators equipped for ADS-B In will receive traffic and weather information directly in the flight deck, providing them with greater situational awareness. Wide Area Augmentation System Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance approach procedures will give properly equipped aircraft Instrument Landing System (ILS)-like capability at non-ILS airports. Through our new NAV-Lean process, we are streamlining the development and implementation for new procedures to ensure that users can take advantage of new navigational procedures and their benefits as quickly as possible. We hope to accelerate design and implementation of RNAV/RNP procedures and optimized descents to achieve their benefits sooner rather than later.

Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM) is a systematic, integrated and expedited approach to implementing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures and associated airspace changes, which was developed in direct response to RTCA Task Force 5 recommendations on the quality, timeliness, and scope of metroplex solutions. OAPM focuses on a geographic area, rather than a single airport. It considers multiple airports and the airspace surrounding a metropolitan area, including all types of operations (air carrier, general aviation, military, etc.), as well as connectivity with other metroplexes.   

The OAPM process uses two types of collaborative teams including FAA and industry partners. Study Teams recommend conceptual airspace and procedure solutions, and then Design and Implementation (D&I) Teams design, refine, review, and implement those recommendations within a near-term three-year timeframe. To date, 21 Metroplex sites have been identified and prioritized with input from FAA and industry. Five sites have completed Study Team activities and potential benefits ranging from $6M to $26M per year have been identified at each site. The Washington, DC and North Texas sites have initiated D&I activities, and D&I activities have been approved for two additional sites (Charlotte and Northern California). Two additional Study Teams are currently active in Atlanta, and Southern California, and expect to release their findings and recommendations shortly.

NextGen Benefits:   Next Steps

In order to achieve these benefits, we know that we need to continue working with our partners in the aviation community. Making sure that we are all on the same page about our expectations, our obligations, and our capabilities is essential to the successful planning, development, and execution of NextGen.

The FAA continues to expand its work on demonstrations, trials and initial deployment of NextGen systems and procedures. NAS operators and users – particularly participants in the demonstrations and trials – are benefiting from them. But there is a chicken-and-egg nature to the economic and policy decisions that will have the most influence over the extent and timing of future benefits.

On the one hand, achieving NextGen’s benefits depends heavily on aircraft operators and other stakeholders investing in the avionics, ground equipment, staffing, training and procedures they will need to take advantage of the infrastructure that the FAA puts in place to transform the aviation system in the coming decade and beyond. On the other hand, the willingness of operators and other stakeholders to make these investments depends critically on the business case for them – analyses of how valuable these benefits will be, and that they have confidence that the FAA can deliver the infrastructure in the time frames and manner required for those benefits to be realized.

When costs are clear but benefits are even a little bit cloudy, there is an information gap that the FAA must help fill. We try to do this in two ways. First, we conduct broad, system-level analyses, estimating how integrated NextGen benefits will develop and grow over a period of years. This work draws on modeling and simulations of how NAS operations will change and what effects the changes will have. The FAA must continue to work closely with the aviation community to ensure these benefits are well understood by those who need to invest in NextGen.

Second, we conduct a wide range of demonstrations and operational trials of specific NextGen systems and procedures. These demonstrations, conducted in real-world settings by operations and development personnel using prototype equipment, are invaluable. They provide all of the stakeholders with the opportunity to see the very real benefits that NextGen can bring. They mitigate program risks and show us whether we are on the right track in our technical approaches. They provide valuable insight into how equipment should be designed for operability, maintainability and a sound human-automation interface. And they are instrumental in advancing our understanding of the benefits to be gained from the capabilities being demonstrated.

Information from the demonstrations also helps us refine our models of NAS operations and how these operations will change, and thus our overall estimates of NextGen benefits. Further, it provides direct measurements of the ways specific NextGen capabilities can benefit NAS stakeholders and the public, enabling stakeholders to improve their own estimates of the benefits and costs of buying equipment for NextGen, and to be more confident of their analyses.   

In an interconnected world, one aviation system cannot succeed on its own.   Each system is a function of the next. All of the major systems need to work in harmony.   In March 2011, the FAA finalized an historic collaborative agreement with Europe to ensure that our future systems—NextGen and SESAR—are fully harmonized.   We have five working groups and more than two dozen specific harmonization programs to ensure that all the small pieces work together. This collaboration has begun in earnest and will continue until the job is done.   

We are closely aligning the work we do on NextGen and SESAR with International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Block Upgrade Initiative. The goal is to identify suites of technology and procedural changes that can be packaged in such a way as to be accessible world wide for improvements in air traffic safety, efficiency and decreased environmental impact.     

The FAA is working towards greater harmonization of airspace through efforts like the Aviation Cooperation Program for the Mid-Americas and Caribbean. Our hope is to use private and public resources to enhance aviation safety and efficiency across 21 countries. 

Latin America has invested in modern navigational equipment and it has improved safety and efficiency. Some of the items we are talking about include upgrading low level and en route radar and enhancing weather radar. We also need to incorporate new technology for airports, such as runway status lights.  We envision ADS-B from the Yucatan Peninsula to the northern region of South America. We want to use a system of data communications to cut down on misunderstandings on the radio.

Finally, in Asia, harmonization is moving forward through efforts like ICAO’s recent Seamless Air Traffic Management Symposium in Bangkok. Participants brainstormed about ways to remove international barriers that exist today in order to make a truly seamless airspace across Asia and the Pacific.

As you can see, we are working steadily and carefully to bring NextGen to fruition. We have mapped out our course and we are moving towards our goals, and we look forward to your continued guidance and oversight as we go forward.   

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks. I would be happy to answer any questions you and the Members of the Subcommittee might have.