NAS Modernization: An Update, Part II

Air Line Pilot, August 2001, p. 19
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

Part I (June/July) outlined the FAA’s new 10-year plan for modernizing the U.S. National Airspace System, recent ALPA testimony to Congress regarding short-term solutions to ATC delays, and ALPA’s NAS Modernization Project Team.

Part II looks at the FAA’s Free Flight program, government/industry recommendations for the U.S. air transportation system for the next 50 years, and Boeing’s recent proposal for a 7-year NAS modernization program.

Free flight

As ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, testified to Congress on May 3, ALPA is concerned that the momentum of the FAA Free Flight program—one of the activities with which the ALPA NAS Modernization Project Team is involved—might not be sustained.

The concept of "free flight," broadly translated, means flight without restraints—ultimately, no restrictions on route, altitude, speed, or runway choice. A few years ago, the FAA touted anything that eased restrictions on flight in the NAS as "free flight."

The FAA’s public website on its Free Flight program ( says, "Free Flight enhances the aviation community’s ability to collaboratively share data and to view and optimize all phases of flight—from planning and surface operations to enroute flight paths. In collaboration with the aviation community, Free Flight is introducing new technologies and procedures.

"Free Flight is the industry-endorsed strategy that calls for the limited deployment of selected core capabilities that are already providing early benefits to users of the NAS. Deployed systems are integrated into the traffic management system with operational procedures and training to minimize risk and achieve greater user satisfaction."

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey established Free Flight Phase I (FFP1) in October 1998. This happened after almost 4 years of study by RTCA, an organization that serves in an advisory capacity to the FAA through a consensus process that includes the airline industry, labor groups (including ALPA), and the FAA itself. FFP1 is scheduled to be completed by the end of calendar year 2002.

FFP1, says the FAA, "was chartered to achieve the limited deployment of five sets of tools"—i.e., the "selected core capabilities" mentioned above:

* CDM—collaborative decisionmaking —provides airline operations centers and the FAA with real-time access to NAS status information, including weather, equipment availability, and delays. This collaboration helps manage the airspace more efficiently. The three components of CDM are ground delay program enhancements for optimizing user schedules and airport arrival times; initial collaborative routing for sharing reroute decisions; and NAS status information for sharing the latest airspace information for better flight planning (information now available on military special-use airspace).

* URET—user request evaluation tool—is a conflict probe that lets controllers manage user requests in enroute airspace by identifying potential aircraft-to-aircraft conflicts as early as 20 minutes ahead. (Available at Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Memphis ARTCCs.)

* TMA—traffic management advisor—gives enroute controllers and traffic management specialists the ability to develop arrival sequence plans for selected airports and thus to smooth arrivals in the enroute and descent phases of flight and to optimize runway usage. ("Planned capability achieved" at Denver and Minneapolis ARTCCs; initial daily use begun at Atlanta and Los Angeles ARTCCs.)

* pFAST—the passive final approach spacing tool—maximizes runway use by providing controllers with aircraft sequence numbers and runway assignments according to user preferences and ATC system constraints, optimizing approach sequencing, runway assignments, and controller awareness. (Operational at Southern California TRACON; daily use begun at DFW.)

* SMA—surface movement advisor—provides aircraft arrival information to airline ramp towers to help airlines better coordinate and manage airport ground operations and services (gates, baggage operations, refueling, food service, etc.). (Available for DFW, DTW, EWR, ORD, PHL, and TEB.)

Says the FAA, "Free Flight Phase 2 is now chartered to geographically expand upon the successes of FFP1 as well as to conduct research to alleviate congestion and provide greater access to the NAS." FFP2 will "introduce new capabilities from 2003 through 2005," according to the agency.

CPDLC (controller/pilot datalink communications) was to be part of FFP1, but has been rescheduled for FFP2.

If your eyes are beginning to glaze over, relax—you won’t be tested on the acronyms. Much of Free Flight will occur behind the curtain, invisible to pilots. You probably don’t care about the details, only whether the end result works for you.

On that score, ALPA has on its website ( an electronic survey prepared by the FAA to gather pilot input on the effectiveness of these Free Flight tools. The agency wants to know if, for example, you have been given fewer vectoring delays in a certain terminal area, suffered fewer speed restrictions enroute, or been granted direct flight legs more often.

Boeing’s proposal

In April, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey proposed a 10-year NAS modernization plan to revamp the U.S. ATC and air navigation system and facilities and equipment, including airports. Called the NAS Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), "A Foundation for Capacity Enhancement," the 10-year blueprint groups capacity-demand problems into four areas—arrival/departure rate, airport weather conditions, enroute congestion, and enroute severe weather.

The OEP further divides the next decade into three time periods—near-term (2001), mid-term (2002 through 2004), and long-term (2005 through 2010), with goals and milestones for each in four areas.

Boeing recently announced its own proposal for NAS modernization that would dovetail with the FAA 10-year plan but reach aggressively beyond it and be completed within 7 years.

Key to the Boeing plan is an independent constellation of satellites for communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) that would augment the existing U.S. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) satnav system but offer a substantially more sophisticated array of services, including integrated CNS.

"The Boeing plan," says Capt. Woerth, "has three attractive components for airline pilots.

"First, it proposes to do more and do it more quickly than the FAA plan.

"Second, it is global in nature. This addresses many of the global ATC system safety issues associated with operations over oceans and in underdeveloped sectors of the world.

"Third, the new space-based concepts that Boeing proposes will provide additional safety enhancements, of the sort that might be achieved only through an additional constellation of communication, navigation, and surveillance satellites."

Capt. Woerth points out that these gains can be realized only by having all stakeholders working together in tandem—including the FAA, Boeing, the airlines, pilots, controllers, and Congress, which, he says, "must provide stable, adequate funding while resisting urges to micromanage or second-guess the process."

Boeing has already demonstrated its ability to make such a broad-based partnership succeed. The development and introduction of the Boeing 777 was a case in point. The Triple Seven program brought together a diverse group of airline industry organizations—including ALPA—that all contributed to defining and producing a product that Capt. Woerth characterizes as "a pace-setting component of our aviation transportation system."

Boeing’s new concepts for air traffic management "are indeed visionary," he continues. "However, we are optimistic that the solid foundation provided by the FAA’s plans for new runways, improved ATC tools for the present system, and investment by ATC system users in new equipment will provide the stepping stones necessary to launch into the system envisioned by Boeing."

Capt. Woerth concludes, "The history of our ATC system has been a litany of neglect broken by occasional bouts of misguided fixes. We see this [Boeing proposal] as our best hope to break that dismal pattern. ALPA strongly endorses this kind of combined approach—in which the synergistic result may very well be more than the sum of its parts—as the best means to achieve a significant reduction in [air traffic] delays, to meet future [NAS and airport] capacity requirements, and to improve safety in the skies."

The next 50 years

Some, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, prefer to take the long view; his poem, "Locksley Hall," in 1842 foresaw "the heavens fill with commerce" and "pilots of the purple twilight" (see Part I). In a similar vein, an august government/industry group—the Federal Transportation Advisory Group (FTAG)—has thought long and hard about what needs to be done during the next 50 years.

In February, FTAG published a report, "Vision 2050: An Integrated National Transportation System," that warned, "Parts of our transportation system are already approaching gridlock…. Transportation demand—both passenger and freight—is predicted to double in the next 20 years and triple within 50 years, with no major increases in capacity on the drawing board. Innovative solutions are required now….

"Major transportation improvements take decades to deploy," FTAG continued. "Delay [in planning and investing in our next-generation transportation system] will result in continued deterioration, increasing congestion, and rising costs."

The FTAG document prescribed "a bold transportation vision" having "three interlinked elements that must be addressed simultaneously and intermodally…. Our…vision is

* "an integrated national transportation system that can economically move anyone and anything anywhere, anytime, on time;

* "without fatalities and injuries; and

* "…not dependent on foreign energy and is compatible with the environment (e.g., with respect to noxious emissions, greenhouse gases, and noise)."

The advisory group warned, in blunt language, that "the federal government is currently neither organized nor incentivized to develop the integrated national transportation system the nation needs in the 21st century."

Therefore, said FTAG, "alliances are critical. Some of these alliances must be formalized into new institutions to better operate our transportation system. These alliances will require shared governance among the stakeholders and a new decision-making framework…."

FTAG urged the President to

1. "Declare that improving the nation’s transportation system is a top priority. Form a bipartisan Presidential Commission on Transportation to determine the steps necessary to achieve the vision laid out in this document.

2. "Develop a National Transportation Strategy by January 2002 to guide transportation policy and investment.

3. "Create a permanent Federal Advisory Committee [of] all stakeholders to provide guidance on national transportation policy issues from a long-term, systemic perspective.

4. "Form a nonprofit, public/private sector organization … to help the government define and maintain a national transportation system architecture.

5. "Determine transportation workforce needs for the next 50 years and… create a workforce development plan.

6. "Significantly increase funding for long-term, high-risk enabling research over the next 10 years. Create a civilian Advanced Research Projects Agency to stimulate and demonstrate high-risk, high-payoff transportation technologies and concepts with the transportation sector to accelerate their deployment."

7. Regarding infrastructure, integrate transportation into DOD’s Global Information Grid, implement Partnership for the Advancement of Infrastructure and its Renewal, and determine the infrastructure requirements of a non-carbon-based transportation system.

8. "Foster partnerships in the transportation community, especially in multimodal and information technology areas.

9. "Create a government/university/industry task force to identify ways to eliminate the regulatory and legal barriers to innovation in transportation.

10. "Create a transportation investment fund with the transportation sector that would provide the R&D necessary to spur innovative and system-level solutions in transportation."

FTAG noted, "We…expect that new technology and concepts will emerge that will help us achieve these goals and objectives. In 1900, for example, automobiles and powered flight were viewed as the dreams of a few, but within 10 years—not 50—Henry Ford was mass-producing the Model T and the Wright brothers had demonstrated that human beings could fly."

New technology, yes; and old-fashioned elbow grease, money, concrete, patience, perseverance, and a grasp of the big picture while attending to myriad details.

Tennyson, you had it easy.