The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is working like mad, so they say, to establish a new air traffic control system in the United States, but passengers don’t seem to be experiencing much bang for their dollars.
Last week, the top technical and operation minds in aviation gathered in Washington to discuss the state of development of the new air traffic control system. This group is known as RTCA. The initials come from its original name — Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics.
Unfortunately, though technology has changed for the rest of the world, our aviation system is still mired in the past. As many may or may not know, the air traffic control system in America is cobbled together with a collection of 1950 and 1960 technology. Our air traffic system uses radios with dials, navigates via VOR (radio signals) and spaces aircraft based on radar sweeps.
Technology such as the satellite GPS navigation that we use every day in our cars and that tracks our smart phones, still has not made it into airline cockpits as the main navigation and positioning system.
Today’s deployed aviation navigation is only a small technological step beyond the air traffic navigation systems that were guided by giant bonfires spaced across the country to guide pilots. Amazingly, many of the current guidance points for pilots are still operating from the sites of what were once bonfires lit at night to show pilots the way across the country.
The technology already exists. New airline navigation systems have been used in areas that required more precise aircraft locations, such as in the tricky airports of Alaska with narrow, difficult approaches between plunging mountainsides. There, RNP, a far more precise technology, has been in use since 1996. That’s almost 20 years. Since that time, almost no other airspaces have been equipped with this 20-year-old technology.
Some airlines, such as Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines, have installed RNP capabilities in all of their planes; however, they often cannot use the technology at airports where the instrumentation and airspace has not been configured for the technology in the cockpit.
Bill Ayer, chair of the NextGen Advisory Committee and retired chairman and CEO of Alaska Airlines, noted as he looked back on the 1996 accomplishments in Alaska, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” The dream of a modern air traffic operation is beginning to seem like a hallucination.
The aviation community has experienced too many vision statements and promises. It is time that the FAA move forward with a clear mission and execute.
Anyone can imagine the frustration that airlines feel when they invest in new technology and avionics only to have the new gizmos remain unused.
And RNP is only the tip of the proverbial air traffic organization iceberg. There are technologies galore — ADS-B, DataCom, CSS-W, NASVS, CATMT and SWIM to name a few. Each technology requires new rules and regulations, testing, standards-setting, coordination with other standard-setting operations, integration with current instrumentation and domestic and international certification. It is a tall order.
So, what is the problem? Why, with the world shifting from landlines to cell phones and the internet spreading across the planet in the last 20 years, new technology hasn’t found its way into our airline cockpits, airport operations and air traffic systems?
My assessment is that the FAA is mired in the regulatory processes and is not mission driven. Whenever I speak with folks from the FAA, they fall back on their simple statement that safety is their most important job. However, they can make sure there is never another plane crash by shutting down the aviation system.
So, safety is not their Number 1 mission. Their mission is to operate an aviation system that balances operational realities with safety. They have done that well, but the technology that underpins FAA systems is being left in the dustbins of history. One air-traffic operator lamented the need to procure vacuum tubes from Eastern Europe, because no one in the USA manufactures them any more — that’s how old the equipment is.
Statements such as the one uttered by John Hickey, FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, about integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones to the rest of us) in the year 2020 were alarming. The FAA may be planning for a timeline where rules and regulations for drones will be coming in 2020, but, reality is that drones are already flying on our airspace. Planning for 2020 is not a luxury that the FAA will face.
With the new air traffic control systems, NextGen to many, the FAA has planned far into the future and basically said, “To hell with technology today.” Of course, with a functioning system, albeit ancient in terms of technology, the FAA can take that approach. But, in the real world, technology is moving at smartphone- and iPad-speed. By 2020 drones will be an established reality. Outside of the air traffic control cocoon, which is controlled by the FAA, technology is racing forward.
It would help if the FAA and the industry stakeholders in NextGen would let the American people know what they are doing and what they are planning. In that case, there may be more understanding of the promise of NextGen and more public pressure to move into the 21st Century with our air traffic organizations.
If something doesn’t change, RTCA will be back discussing the same issues they have pondered for the past decade and implementation will fall further behind. The costs of delay in terms of time, money and efficiency to the American economy are enormous. And, the costs to aviation stakeholders who have committed to the new technology will dampen future trust in the FAA’s capabilities.