NextGen and Air Traffic Organization Reform: Getting It Right

NextGen and Air Traffic Organization Reform: Getting It Right

To maintain a competitive advantage in the international marketplace, the United States’ national airspace system (NAS)—which includes the air- and ground-based infrastructure, including air traffic control services, voice and data communication, ground- and space-based navigation, airports, aircraft, and more—must continue to be modernized.

The baseline system of air traffic management is based on technologies, techniques, and processes that date back decades. Progress in fielding upgraded air traffic control (ATC) computer systems, enhanced space-based navigation procedures, and other NextGen programs continues, but critical elements of the original infrastructure continue to deteriorate even as they are being replaced. As a result, the ability of the FAA and operators in the NAS to guarantee the safest and most efficient travel possible is threatened.

The need for infrastructure improvement to safely increase efficiency for U.S. carriers extends beyond our borders. The ALPA President’s Committee for Remote Operations has begun to address the need for safely enhancing infrastructure improvements in the far northern regions of Canada and Alaska. These locations are not simply destinations for domestic travel—they can be, and have been, used as the only available emergency alternates for long-haul international widebody carriers.

The upgrade from the current outdated system to a modern, more efficient one is as complex as the technologies themselves. It is simply impossible to “turn off” the current system while changes are made. Every major upgrade to the system must be undertaken while the system is in full operation, with the existing workforce, without significantly impacting the current capacity of the system, and with no degradation in safety. Thus, development of equipment and procedures, acquisition and deployment strategies, and training for pilots, controllers, and technicians must all be fully integrated as part of a comprehensive plan. The mixture of aircraft with differing capabilities increases the complexity of the effort to modernize. We have to continue to service existing technologies and procedures while implementing new technologies and innovative procedures to be utilized in the future.

Existing and emerging technologies and innovative procedures hold the promise of significant increases in the ability to improve the already high level of safety while also improving system capacity and efficiency, allowing our airlines to grow and ultimately save on costs, resulting in a better business environment and a more level playing field for U.S. airlines. However, without a firm commitment of appropriate and continuing resources, combined with effective planning and execution of those plans, these efficiencies will never materialize.

The business model of the air traffic service governance system is the subject of current discussion. ALPA believes that, in addition to the funding and technical concerns noted above, a safe, efficient, effective ATC system must have certain other characteristics in order to function in a dynamic ATC environment. To ensure a safe, efficient delivery of these critical services, any structure being considered must provide stable, reliable, and continuous funding. The air traffic organization should be a not-for-profit entity that requires all users pay a fair and equitable share based on their use of the system. Governance must include all key stakeholders, including the main operators in the system—airline pilots represented by ALPA. Any shift in responsibilities for providing ATC services from a government agency to another not-for-profit model must not disrupt the employer-employee relationship in an adverse way. Any shift must also continue to provide a stable and secure working environment for all employees of the agency including the continuity of the collective bargaining relationships and processes for the employees represented.

NextGen Benefits

NextGen will improve efficiency of operations, enhance both the accuracy of navigation and the ability to pinpoint the position of aircraft in flight and on the ground, streamline communications, and provide sophisticated decision-support tools for both pilots and controllers. This will result in increased capacity, reduced delays in the air and on the ground, and diminished greenhouse gas emissions. Less fuel will be consumed, resulting in immediate cost savings. Reduced taxi and flight time also translates into less noise and fewer emissions. Positive knowledge of exactly where the aircraft is translates into reduced risk, more efficient traffic management and aircraft utilization, reduced delays, and fewer runway incursions. All of these benefits lead to profitability and growth of our airlines and our nation’s economy, as well as a better customer experience and further enhanced safety.

Flight Plan

The U.S. government should fully and continuously invest in NextGen to promote greater safety and efficiency. The scope, duration, and cost of NextGen require that decisions on critical aspects, such as funding and equipage, must be timely, accurate, and focused on the overall needs of the public. Continued strong government leadership, consistent and sustained long-term funding, cooperation with international partners, and involving stakeholders in planning are all needed in establishing standards and requiring minimum levels of equipage.

In recent years, implementation has been slowed due to a lapsed FAA reauthorization, sequestration, and the congressional appropriations process. This inconsistent and unstable funding has needlessly created inefficiency in our air traffic management system and dramatically slowed NextGen progress. Congress should pass, and the president should sign, an FAA reauthorization bill that provides full funding for air traffic operations, including NextGen technologies and procedures and appropriate oversight.