Issue 1 – Airspace Redesign

To take advantage of the efficiencies Nextgen will bring to air traffic control, the FAA must establish new performance-based navigation routes and procedures, using Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) specifications (Department Of Transportation, 2010). The potential benefits of these routes and procedures include shorter, more direct flight paths; improved airport arrival and departure efficiency; enhanced controller productivity; fuel savings; and reduced aircraft noise and carbon emissions (Department Of Transportation, 2010). A key element of this process is the FAA’s Metroplex Project, an effort to “loosen key bottlenecks in metroplexes, the busy metropolitan areas where multiple airports and competing airspace lead to less-than-efficient operations” (Federal Aviation Administration, 2011, p. 14). The National Airspace and Procedures Plan detailed a list of 21 such areas along with an aggressive timeline to have all of them studied by the end of FY13, and a majority of Design and Implementation Teams are expected to be underway or completed by 2016(Federal Aviation Administration, 2010a). But as of December 2011, studies had only been completed at a total of seven sites with FAA focusing primarily on the development of a targeted number of procedures and not on measuring potential benefits to the users (Scovel III, 2011). Additionally, the FAA’s new flight procedures are mostly overlays of existing routes and do not provide shorter flight paths to alleviate congestion (Scovel III, 2011).

Issue 2 –Enroute Automation Modernization

En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) is a program to replace the 40-year-old En Route Host computer and backup system used at 20 FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers nationwide and is central to NexGen implementation, helping to advance the transition from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system of air traffic management (Federal Aviation Administration, 2010b). The FAA originally planned to deploy ERAM to 20 en route facilities by the end of 2010 but during testing at ERAM’s initial operating site, FAA encountered significant software-related problems, including radar processing failures and handing off traffic between controllers (Department Of Transportation, 2010). As a result, FAA stopped ERAM testing in March 2010 to reexamine plans and develop corrective actions and now the agency is requesting $120 million for ERAM in its fiscal year 2012 budget request and now plans to complete ERAM in 2014—a schedule slip of 4 years (Scovel III, 2011). While the FAA remains confident it will overcome the issues with ERAM, continued problems with ERAM will also affect both the cost and pace of FAA’s other key NextGen efforts and will also affect FAA’s ability to develop trajectory-based operations and transition to a common automation platform for terminal and en route operations (Scovel III, 2011).

Issue 3 – Managing Design Specifications for Interoperability

In its NextGen implementation plan, the FAA admits the difficulty of ensuring communication and coordination across the many vendors and disciplines needed to make NextGen work, but does little to specify how it will insure that communication and coordination take place (Federal Aviation Administration, 2011). To ensure NextGen’s success, critical decisions must be made, to include

  1. Division of responsibilities to be delegated to pilots in the cockpit and to controllers and FAA ground systems for tracking aircraft;
  2. Level of automation needed to support division of responsibility, ranging from today’s largely manual flight management to a primarily automated system with little controller involvement; and
  3. Number and locations of air traffic facilities needed to support (Scovel III, 2011).

Issue 4 – Air Traffic Controller Staffing and Training

The FAA believes that the transition to NextGen will place stringent demands on its workforce (Federal Aviation Administration, 2011). Further, the agency estimates that it will need to hire and train nearly 11,000 new air traffic controllers by fiscal year 2019 to replace controllers hired after the 1981 strike who are now eligible to retire (Department Of Transportation, 2010). Yet in spite of the current and future demands, 26 percent of FAA’s controller workforce is currently in training, compared to 15 percent in 2004, creating the potential for fewer certified controllers in the workforce to control air traffic while providing on-the-job training for new controllers (Department Of Transportation, 2010). This lower experience level may have directly contributed to the 53% increase in the number of operational errors by air traffic controllers, 1,234 to 1,887, between fiscal years 2009 and 2010 (Scovel III, 2011).

Issue 5 – Ambiguous Guidance in Key Data Technology Issues to Facilitate NextGen Transition

Three critical programs to streamline efficient data sharing for airspace users face uncertainty in respect to what they will ultimately cost, when they will be completed, and what they will deliver:

  • Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)– In order to avoid cost, schedule and performance shortfalls, FAA must:
    • Finalize requirements for capabilities to display traffic information in the cockpit;
    • Modify the systems controllers rely on to manage traffic;
    • Addresses broadcast frequency congestion concerns;
    • Implement procedures for separating aircraft; and
    • Assess security vulnerabilities.

These risks, if not successfully mitigated, could lead to cost, schedule, and performance shortfalls (Scovel III, 2011).

  • System Wide Information Management (SWIM)is the network structure that will carry NextGen digital information and will enable cost-effective, real-time data exchange and sharing among users of the NAS (Federal Aviation Administration, 2011).
    • FAA planning to implement SWIM in three segments but has only approved funding for the first segment at an estimated cost of $284 million;
    • FAA has already increased costs for the first segment by more than $100 million and delayed its completion by at least 2 years;
    • FAA has not established clear lines of accountability for overseeing how SWIM is developed and managed; and
    • Without a consistent vision of SWIM’s requirements and clearly defined program priorities, the true cost and timeline to deploy SWIM and the realization of expected benefits are unknown. (Scovel III, 2011)

  • Data Communications (DataComm)will enable digital air traffic control (ATC) information to be exchanged between controllers and pilots, and auto-loaded directly into aircraft flight management systems, decreasing the reliance on voice communication and significantly reducing opportunities for error (Federal Aviation Administration, 2011).
    • FAA plans to implement DataComm in at least two segments, and a final investment decision is not expected until fiscal year 2012;
    • Total program costs are uncertain but estimated to be almost $3 billion;
    • Developing and implementing DataComm is a complex, high-risk effort, and industry officials have expressed skepticism about FAA’s ability to deliver on such a program because the Agency abandoned a data link effort in the past due to cost concerns; and
    • Successful implementation of DataComm faces the challenges of integrating with FAA automation systems and overcoming users’ reluctance to equip (Scovel III, 2011).