Committee Corner
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ALPA Pushes for NASMOD Funding

Safety and Security/Government Affairs

The United States must make modernizing the National Airspace System a high national priority.

Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor
Air Line Pilot
, February 2005, p.26

The volume of air traffic in the United States is now greater than before September 2001 and growing, but the current and projected FAA investments in modernizing the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) are critically underfunded and not keeping up with future requirements.

ALPA's president, Capt. Duane Woerth, charges, "An apparent disconnect exists between the Bush administration's stated goal of transforming today's air transportation system into one capable of supporting 21st-century requirements and its planned FAA facilities and equipment (F&E) funding profile."

According to the FAA's Flight Plan 2005-2009, aviation is a $1.4 trillion/year business globally. The U.S. share currently is $900 billion, or about 2/3 of the global total. The United States is in danger, however, of letting its leadership role in global aviation slip away. The U.S. aviation industry supports 11 million jobs and makes up 7 percent of the total U.S. job market. But 14 of the 35 busiest U.S. airports already are trying to handle more traffic than before September 2001.

The FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office estimates that U.S. airlines will fly 1 billion passenger miles per year by 2015-up from 709 million flown in 2000. Moreover, the agency estimates that U.S. airline passenger and cargo traffic will triple by 2025. Accordingly, the number of large U.S. airports handling more than 500,000 flights per year will also triple by 2025, increasing from 9 to 27. Another estimate: by 2020, some 18 major U.S. airports (vs. 8 today) will be congested.

"In 1995, the U.S. government and the aviation industry reached consensus on a direction for the future of 'free flight'-minimal restrictions on desired routes, altitudes, and speeds," says Capt. Terry McVenes, ALPA's Executive Air Safety Chairman. "Unfortunately, the decade since has brought little real action from the FAA (some tools for air traffic controllers, plus limited funding of NASMOD projects), with limited benefit for airlines."

In 2004, the unraveling of "Growth without Gridlock," the government/industry agreement to reduce air traffic delays, led to mandatory reductions in flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and delays approaching the record levels of 2000 that prompted congressional inquiries.

FAA plans/commitment

In 2001, the FAA unveiled its Operational Evolution Plan (OEP). The goal of the OEP is to sustain and increase U.S. airspace and airport capacity 30 percent in 10 years. The OEP needs $10-12 billion total (i.e., more than $1 billion/year) to be fully funded; it is not.

Recently, the agency released Strategic Flight Plan 2005-2009, its commitment to meet demands of future capacity. Sadly, however, that commitment hasn't materialized in the FAA budget. The FAA's FY2005 F&E budget request was for only $2.5 billion. The agency itself estimates that it needs $2.7 billion/year just to sustain the current U.S. air transportation system's infrastructure, plus another $300 million/year for improvements, for a total of $3 billion/year.

The FAA's F&E request for FY05 is $393 million less than the FY04 F&E budget. The agency, therefore, cannot build new infrastructure or even maintain the current level of service at this funding level.

Of the $2.5 billion request for FY2005, about $1.5 billion would be for personnel costs, maintaining support facilities like control towers, radar facilities, and replacing support systems such as the FAA telecommunications infrastructure. Only $1 billion would go to improving safety, efficiency, reliability, and capacity of the NAS (i.e., improvements that would directly benefit airlines).

NASMOD projects

One critical component of NASMOD is En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), an 8-year project with multiple pieces. ERAM involves new software and hardware for the United States' primary and backup enroute ATC systems. The new ERAM software will replace the existing software used in U.S. air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs), software that was written in the 1960s.

ERAM involves huge risks because of its size and complexity. The FAA has spent more than $930 million on ERAM so far; the total tab could push $2 billion. One reason is that ERAM must be completed, tested, and deployed by 2010-the year when the vendor who supports the current ARTCC system will cease to do so. Delaying ERAM deployment could be very costly.

Despite the high cost of ERAM, the initial system will add no new capabilities to enroute ATC. Enhancements such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which involves aircraft automatically transmitting GPS position to ATC and other aircraft, and controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), will not be added until the first ERAM upgrade-now scheduled for 2012.

CPDLC is a classic example of a NASMOD program moving by fits and starts as the FAA's budget and priorities have changed-on, then off, then on again. The agency spent more than $200 million on developing CPDLC for more than a decade. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, delayed initial deployment of CPDLC by 2 years. However, the FAA did get CPDLC up and running in Miami Center. American Airlines had about 30 airplanes capable of using CPDLC; Delta, Continental, and FedEx were modifying airplanes to participate. Unfortunately, the FAA decided that the cost of maintaining a single CPDLC system at a single location was prohibitively expensive; in October 2004, the agency pulled the plug on this promising program. Major U.S. airlines were committed to CPDLC, but lack of FAA support short-stopped the project.

Another stalled NASMOD program is the Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS), which uses airport-based GPS equipment to provide very precise local corrections to GPS signals. LAAS would enable precision landing capability at all of an equipped airport's runways-at lower cost than installing and maintaining an ILS.

The FAA has already spent more than $2 million on LAAS research and development. In mid-2003, the agency signed contracts to produce a limited number of LAAS installations; however, the contracts were cancelled because of budget constraints. The FAA included a very small R&D budget for LAAS in its FY05 budget request, with no plans to deploy the precision landing aid.

Perhaps even more perplexing is the FAA's foot-dragging on required navigation performance (RNP) approaches. In 2002, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey set her agency on a course to move from ground-based to space-based (i.e., GPS) navigation. The FAA established its RNP office in 2003-seven years after Alaska Airlines began flying "special" (i.e., not available to the public) RNP approaches in southeast Alaska. The airline had developed the approaches by itself, and the FAA then approved them.

The FAA's commitment to developing and implementing RNP approaches, which offer considerable improvements in safety, efficiency, and airport and airspace capacity, is not only late, but too little. The agency has a budget of only $16 million for developing RNP approach criteria and developing and publishing RNP approaches.

The FAA expects to complete only five new "special" RNP approaches in 2005. One of those will be an RNP approach to Washington National Airport-essentially the same approach that Boeing demonstrated to senior FAA officials in 2002! By contrast, Canada expects to complete 90 new RNP approaches in 10 months.

Meanwhile, the FAA is resisting proposals to use a designation process that would allow private companies to develop RNP procedures.

What needs to be done

Capt. Woerth stresses, "In brief, NASMOD must become a national priority-and soon." The average NASMOD project takes 15 years to complete. Waiting any longer to restore adequate funding to NASMOD could be disastrous to the U.S. airline industry-and to the country as a whole.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, cost the U.S. economy an estimated $3 trillion. The U.S. airline industry is still paying more than its share of this staggering loss. If the nation fails to make NASMOD a national priority, however, the economic effects of that failure might dwarf those of 9/11.

Capt. Woerth adds, "Taxes, fees, and surcharges on airline tickets can now make up nearly half of a ticket's total cost. Raising taxes on airline tickets to pay for NASMOD is not the answer; increases in NASMOD funding must come from the general treasury."

Says Capt. McVenes, "Elevating NASMOD to its deserved national priority must result in giving the FAA the $3 billion/year that the agency needs to meet its requirements for facilities and equipment; fully funding the FAA's Operational Evolution Plan and Strategic Plan; fully funding ERAM; developing and publishing RNP approaches to each runway end at each of the 35 busiest U.S. airports in the next year-allowing private industry to participate in developing RNP procedures, with the FAA reviewing and publishing them via a process similar to that used for designating airline check airmen and designated engineering representatives; and deploying LAAS units at several large U.S. airports. Airlines should be given an incentive to equip for LAAS (FedEx has shown interest at Memphis)."

ALPA's Government Affairs Department, working closely with the Association's Engineering and Air Safety Department, will be working hard during the coming months to present to Congress ALPA's concerns about these issues of vital importance to our members and our nation.