Agencies and industry are taking on one of government's biggest projects: a 21st century solution to aviation gridlock.
This is the state of air transportation in America: Demand is outpacing airport capacity. Flight delays of an hour or more are mounting as air traffic and security requirements are increasing.
The federal air traffic control system-scanning congested flyways with radar and passing information from control center to control center on the ground during an airplane's flight-is functionally obsolete, and taxes on tickets and jet fuel barely begin to cover what it costs to operate and maintain it. The U.S. economy is threatened, because aviation contributes $900 billion to the gross domestic product and employs 7 percent of the workforce.
Imagine this situation in 10 or 20 years, unchanged except for demand. By then, more than 1 billion passengers annually will travel by airplane and tens of thousands of unconventional new aircraft will swarm the skies. The introduction of megasize 600-passenger airliners, tiny four- and six-seat microjets, unmanned aerial vehicles and even some private spacecraft will triple the burden on an air traffic control system that hasn't changed substantially in 40 years.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta sees the future differently. "For the next generation of travelers, all those un-pleasant hassles associated with flying today could seem as quaint as the stories that I tell my grandchildren about the sticking needle on the record player, or rewinding the faded ribbon on a manual typewriter," he remarked in June at a conference sponsored by a two-year-old federal group that's trying to prevent the gridlock nightmare from becoming reality.
Six federal agencies, the White House and private industry are collaborating to manage a project of almost unimaginable scope: build a blueprint for air traffic control in 2025. The plan, designed to accommodate the anticipated threefold growth in demand, lists several broad goals for expediting the movement of people and cargo, bolstering safety and security, reducing weather delays, protecting the environment and retaining U.S. leadership in global aviation. The vision for the Next Generation Air Transportation System integrates civil and military operations, tailors services to the needs of individual customers, enables nearly instant exchanges of information and increases the predictability of air travel. NGATS, as it's known in the industry, moves air traffic control from Earth to sky and replaces antiquated ground infrastructure with orbiting satellites, on-board automation and data-link communications. It uses advanced computers, precision plotting through Global Positioning Systems and computer-based decision assistance programs.
The partnership known as the Joint Planning and Development Office is "the best example of interagency cooperation" Mineta has ever seen. Observers in industry and members of Congress have welcomed the office as a good first step toward making sense of a faltering air traffic control modernization program that has cost the government $30 billion since 1983. But many wonder whether the fledgling organization has the moxie to carry out its mission in the face of budget cuts, shrinking capital investments and declining aviation trust fund balances.
Each day, more than 60 percent of the world's air traffic passes through U.S. airspace. The system is crucial to America's economic advancement in the 21st century, but its operation and infrastructure are stuck in the 1960s. Two-thirds of its assets are beyond their useful life. Just maintaining the system during the next 10 years will cost $30 billion. The Federal Aviation Administration had hoped to spend only $2.5 billion to deploy new radar, communications and weather systems by 1996. Some upgrades have been implemented, but after years of cost overruns and delays, completion still is five to 10 years away.
In the meantime, the civil aviation skyline has changed. The industry has sharpened its focus on cutting costs and boosting efficiency, while FAA's costs to operate the national airspace system have grown 6.3 percent per year. Numerous study groups including the National Academies' National Research Council and the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry have concluded that the current system can't adapt to changing market conditions. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's also become clear that it can't satisfy emerging safety and security needs.
The 2003 Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act directed the Bush administration to develop a comprehensive plan for a Next Generation Air Transportation System that can accommodate the changing needs of the aviation industry. The act chartered the Joint Planning and Development Office within FAA to coordinate federal research related to air transportation, and to set aside funding of up to $50 million a year through 2010.
FAA leads the interagency effort that leverages expertise and resources within the Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce departments as well as at NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. FAA put up $5 million in seed money and expects to get $17 million for JPDO in 2006. Additional funding and in-kind support comes from the participating agencies.
The office brings together a staff of about 75 civil servants with contract support from Mitre Corp., under the direction of Charles Keegan, a former air traffic controller who also serves as vice president for operations and planning at FAA. He says the "mind-boggling" size, scope and level of participation in JPDO-and the extent to which the members cooperate-are unprecedented in government. "This is incredibly untraditional. This is the cutting edge in interagency cooperation."
One partner in the process is just as important as the next to the success of the NGATS planning and implementation. Key players in the near term are FAA and the Defense Department, which are the two agencies responsible for air traffic control in the United States, and NASA, whose air traffic management research laid the foundation for the current national airspace system. The need to mitigate delays caused by storms makes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service another essential contributor.
A senior policy committee chaired by the Transportation secretary oversees JPDO activities. The organization also depends on other federal agencies and an outside group not represented on the senior policy committee.
To bridge a gap between government and the private sector, FAA established the Next Generation Air Transportation System Institute in June. It is part of the National Center for Advanced Technologies, a nonprofit corporation affiliated with the Washington-based Aerospace Industries Association, and its job is analysis to help design and implement the air traffic control system of the future.
The institute's first executive director, appointed in July, is Dale G. Goodrich, a former United Airlines pilot and an Air Force reservist at the Pentagon. In 2004, he served as military director of the Air Traffic Services Cell, the Defense Department's primary liaison with FAA. Overseeing the institute is a 15-member management council made up of representatives from aviation interest groups, labor, manufacturing and academia-many with differing views on how the new system ought to be funded and implemented.
JPDO and the institute come together in eight integrated product teams that are addressing the architecture, policies and technological needs for airport infrastructure, safety, security, air traffic management, weather forecasting and environmental protection.
The organization's earliest success, in Keegan's estimation, is the candor and openness member agencies are displaying as they sort out issues of technology, operations and economics. But coordinating the activities of the participating agencies-synchronizing everything from budget submissions to acronym use and font sizes-is a struggle. "We probably have an elephant, and we need to eat that elephant one bite at a time," he says.
The complexity of the business model is a risk, and it's attracting official scrutiny. Both the Transportation Department's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office were looking into JPDO's strategic and financial management processes over the summer.
Transportation IG Kenneth Mead undertook an audit in July at the request of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, which was uneasy about JPDO's progress in coordinating research conducted by other federal agencies and in identifying and estimating the cost of new technological capabilities to pursue. "The big imperatives this year are for the JPDO to determine what level of funding they actually require, how much other agencies are going to contribute, what specific capabilities will be pursued, and when they plan to implement them," Mead told the subcommittee.
Just as the audit got under way, the Senate Appropriations Committee echoed House concerns that JPDO had set neither clear short- and long-term goals nor developed budget and cost estimates. It also warned that JPDO would become "just another internal layer of management" without the authority to influence procurement programs, priorities and timetables. The appropriators directed Mead to assess the current acquisition decision-making process at FAA and to determine how to integrate JPDO into the process.
Keegan welcomes the concurrent audits as "incredibly positive" oversight that will assist JPDO in meeting the needs of its stakeholders. But he rejects the notions that his organization hasn't established firm expectations and isn't influential. He argues that goals and objectives are spelled out in the integrated plan, which was published in December 2004, and through metrics. JPDO's job, says Keegan, is to design the next generation system and then get out of the way. "We don't want the office to get too large-that's a management risk."
The Big Picture
Keegan says JPDO is making measurable progress in overcoming a host of challenges. Chief among them: addressing what life will be like for aviation two decades from now, and choosing technologies that will stand the test of time.
The office is due to report on the technological pursuit in December. The report is expected to cover what the group of agencies knows about needed systems and when they will be available for deployment, as well the amount of research that will be needed for transformation. Because the upcoming report will inform the 2007 budget process, Keegan wasn't at liberty to discuss details in September.
It's generally accepted that some sort of large procurement is looming, but the government hasn't decided what technology to acquire, how to handle the acquisition, or whom to hold accountable for its implementation.
It's also widely known that NGATS will incorporate existing technologies, including the Defense Department's network-centric military air traffic management system and an FAA modernization effort known as the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System. FAA plans to link its large-scale information network with those of the Defense and Homeland Security departments. "Aviation needs to be a much more integral part of the network of information," Keegan says.
One core capability, and a possible candidate for early deployment, is automatic dependent surveillance. Already in use in Alaska, the equipment enables planes to transmit their up-to-the-second whereabouts to air traffic controllers. In bad weather or difficult terrain, it takes over where ground radars leave off.
New approaches to air navigation open the possibility for automated protection zones around critical infrastructure sites. Computers could take control of an unauthorized aircraft approaching a critical facility and divert it to land at a nearby airfield for a security check.
Whatever shape it takes, the future of air traffic control will require substantial federal investment. But resources are thin, spelling early danger for any integrated plan.
The Aerospace Industries Association issued a warning in mid-April, as the House aviation subcommittee reviewed FAA's air traffic modernization progress. "The complexity and scope of this effort cannot be overstated," AIA President and CEO John W. Douglass told the subcommittee. "The successful implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System will not be possible without the clear and consistent support of the legislative and executive branches of our government."
A few weeks later, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told the same group of lawmakers that the nation's aviation trust fund is "in trouble" and begged them for a more stable funding stream. "The mismatch between FAA's growing budget requirements and our revenue sources will hamper our ability to meet the demand for our services," Blakey testified in May. "In simple terms, we can't do it all right now and we can't pay for it all."
Declining trust fund balances are a cause for concern, Keegan agrees. He says they pose a "huge challenge" but solutions are at hand. One of JPDO's tenets is to leverage what participating agencies already are spending on aviation research.
By FAA's count, that's currently $1.5 billion being focused on more positive results. "This isn't about being venture capitalists and asking for big money and seeing what can do," Keegan says. "It's about realistic positive returns and understanding how you fit into the scheme of each agency."
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