I recently participated in a panel discussion sponsored by RTCA at the Washington Convention Center. The primary focus of the panel was to discuss the NextGen notion of “Best Equipped Best Served”. I have a problem with the way this particular element is being batted around, because it connotes a winner/loser atmosphere which in reality doesn’t pay dividends nor supports that which we all in the industry embrace, improved service for all. Let me give you a couple of examples especially as relates to the PBN or RNP strategies and associated activity.
A quick look back at 2011 reveals lots of activity, some real good, some not so good. I feel compelled to reflect ever so briefly on one of the major happenings towards the end of the year. It was the resignation of Randy Babbitt as Administrator of the FAA. Clearly this took all of us by surprise, and to be sure it was a sad event by all accounts. I believe that many of us could find it in our hearts to forgive most people of a DUI offense, especially if there was no damage done except to the offender. Alas there is zero tolerance for this sort of thing, especially for the Administrator of the FAA. So his departure was a forgone conclusion.
For a long time now the talk among most people in the industry I’ve come in contact with has been about globalization, harmony, no borders, blending NextGen with SESAR, in terms of technology, procedures and timing. I believe this is all good stuff, and frankly the right way to go as the world becomes smaller and air travel becomes more affordable and more widely available to so many, especially in developing nations. Recently, I spent time at the US-China Aviation Summit, and clearly that message was foremost on nearly everyone’s agenda. Sure there was lots of talk about their needs as they prepare their country for 4-60 more airports in the next 20 years, and their need for technology and infrastructure, airplanes, crews, and the list goes on, almost limitless. These folks and others who are beginning to see the wisdom in creating and maximizing their aviation industries, are poised to garner every kind of assistance available, whether in terms of experience, or products. There are partnerships all over the world where employment opportunity is available for companies not necessarily headquartered there or not. While I don’t have specific figures, it’s fair to say that even in China, many big and small American companies employ Chinese workers. I suspect this is a solid and rewarding business decision by those long entrenched or by those trying to break into a burgeoning market. I recall the difficulty we at Metron Aviation faced when trying to garner some of the SESAR work early on, and were pretty much told that unless we had a footprint in Europe, it wasn’t likely that we might enjoy some of the business opportunities over there. Yet, there were and continue to be rather large American companies deeply involved in SESAR as the “globalization” rationale continues to be the back beat of the industry’s music. We spend countless hours talking and acting in “collaboration” all around the world, believing that this is the right way to effect change and build the best products and procedures. We include elements from every part of the industry, especially as we move ahead in operational terms. Seeing air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and meteorological types, along with traffic managers, pilots, and airport operators, just to name a nominal group, explore and execute system improvements is very satisfying indeed. It wasn’t that long ago when I was an air traffic controller, that I made decisions for the airlines. I decided who could takeoff and land, with no idea as to the impact to an airlines business model. As we embraced collaborative decision making (CDM), I found it an eye opener and moved to re-establish my role as someone who could afford a slot without necessarily determining who or what aircraft should fill it. Leaving this decision where it best belonged, to the operator. The foundation of Air Traffic Flow Management is now in collaboration, and rightly so. Through those early years of CDM, more and more was learned and shared among industry groups, resulting in a whole new way to conduct business. Putting every stakeholder in a position to both participate in a plans development and eager to execute it. The days of gaming each other were quickly on the decline, and there was a new vigor around how the system would perform.
A Dedication occurred on Saturday April 9, with the newly built David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC), on the same property as the Potomac TRACON in Vint Hill, Va. I had more than a passing interest in this activity, and felt fortunate to have been invited. I saw many who worked with me in the business of Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM), including a number of visionaries who preceded me, providing a solid foundation upon which I was able to continue their work. Of course the very name of the facility recognizes the greatest of visionaries, Dave Hurley. I was fortunate, very fortunate, to have had his guidance and counsel for several years prior to his passing. What’s more, I worked in the Command Center he built for over a decade, the predecessor to the new building. I clearly had mixed emotions about changing the center, but I’m certain that it’s mission will continue, ever forward looking, through this summer season, and all those that follow right into NextGen, whenever we might say we crossed the line from today’s system into something we might all agree is NextGen worthy. Clearly Traffic Flow Management is at the heart of NextGen, and this new building represents an administration commitment to that. New technologies and increased collaboration at all stakeholder levels will certainly continue to afford us a global leadership role.
It was just just a few weeks ago that we participated in another large and influential ATCA symposium. The venue was terrific, and given the economy, I was surprised at the number of vendors in the exhibition area. Clearly Metron Aviation held center stage, especially after 4 o’clock, when it was almost impossible to gain access to our booth. If you want to know why, stop by and see us in Amsterdam at ATC Global, or simply wait until next year. I think the show was very well attended and the sessions were not only engaging, but occasionally dicey, which seems to me at least to make them all the more enjoyable. Limiting pure slide show presentations and using a more discussion oriented methodology worked very well I think. The broad spectrum of topics, even given the general focus on NextGen was also a treat. What I didn’t hear, and haven’t heard, is what is the NextGen focus on system delays now and in the near term.
I thought I’d try an illustrative explanation of Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) as it relates to the more efficient movement of air traffic especially related to NextGen and its anticipated benefits. While many readers are familiar with the application of a flow management strategy, perhaps relating it to an orchestra will make it both easily understandable and slightly different. Historically we tend to think and operate locally, that is to say air traffic control tower operators are very focused on the airport they serve, and have a lesser connection to airspace and activities beyond that which is defined as ”their responsibility.” Terminal radar approach control facilities and enroute centers are equally focused, again on their specific areas of responsibility. The job then of ATFM is to connect these local facilities with a bigger system strategy when there is the need. With an anticipated increase in traffic, and the fact that the current legacy system is ill-equipped to handle much more in the way of an increase in the size of the fleet, we must rely on the use of flow management to accomplish this integration. Clearly, frequency congestion is a significant limiter on the amount of traffic that current air traffic controllers can handle, hence data link is a much anticipated technology that will aid in allowing more aircraft to transit a given sector, or facility. ADS-B provides a more accurate reflection of an aircrafts position and can be used in areas where radar is unavailable, ultimately rendering radar less than efficient. RNP, RNAV and a host of other technologies will add to the systems ability to assimilate and provide the added capacity necessary in NextGen efforts, while maintaining safety margins, reducing fuel burn, and environmental impacts, all the while improving system efficiency. These are some of the individual pieces that make up the system, like instruments in an orchestra.
Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Aviation Week “NextGen Ahead 2010″ program in Washington, DC. I think it was my good fortune because for what felt like the first time, there was a buzz around the place, not just for all things NextGen, and how progress is being made, and how it portends so very positively for the industry going forward, but I actually heard many of the speakers focus on an element that has been largely absent from NextGen dialogue, as well as planning, and participation in work groups that I’ve been among. If you haven’t guessed by now, the missing element has been the controllers. With the long hard days of contract negotiation behind us, I see an opportunity to garner the expertise if not support from the very men and women who will be the center of “NextGen Ahead”, clearly without their valuable input we don’t stand much chance of reaching the rather lofty goals often described by many anticipating NextGen’s bounty. From my perspective, the newer members of FAA’s Air Traffic Control ranks will be the ones who will transition from today’s legacy systems into what will be a whole new ball game. It’s that whole new ball game the industry is focused upon.
Amsterdam, ATC Global, what a rush! You’d never know the world economy was in something of a downturn when entering the RAI in Amsterdam. The facility was clearly alive with activity, more people in attendance than last year and more vendors showing their very latest products, all covering more square footage than in previous years. There were very interesting sessions for two days featuring many of the world’s top movers and shakers in the industry. Topics included a big debate where the notion that ANSPs can only reduce their costs and their charges to airline customers by reducing services. Several high profile executives weighed in on the topic, including Hank Krakowski from the FAA, Patrick Dlamini from South Africa’s ATNS, Paul Barron from UK NATS and others. It was clear to me that while some argued (albeit half heartedly) that reducing services was the right if not only way to go, the majority felt that other more creative cost reducing actions were far better options. This subject is a serious one for those collecting fees for services during this down economy.
I recently had the opportunity to spend several days at the USTDA’s U.S.-India Aviation Summit. The program was alive with both timely and interesting panels. We had many speakers from FAA including Administrator Randy Babbit, Peggy Gilligan, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Di Reimhold Acting Administrator for International Aviation, Kate Lang, Associate Administrator for Airports, Nancy Kalinowski, Vice President, System Operations, and Carey Fagan, Director Strategy and Performance International Office. Each of these folks delivered serious and valuable messages during their sessions. I was taken by the breadth of FAA involvement, and their ability to address the myriad issues facing the service provider in India, as they try to build their infrastructure. The Indian Government has a large interest in understanding what the FAA has done and what goes on here in the U.S.
Recently I was able to both observe and participate in a skull session surrounding the upcoming closure of runway 31L at JFK. The group of attendees was large, in the range of 30 people. They represented many of the major airline operators, the airport operator and several FAA facilities. I think after all of the briefings were accomplished, everyone had clarity on the anticipated impact of losing a runway for as many as four months at a time, beginning in March 2010. I was struck by the desire to find common ground in developing plans to mitigate the expected loss. The group went from best circumstances where there would be very little in the way of operational impact, to the “Murphy’s Law” scenario where the airport would be relegated single runway status, for a relatively long period of time. The effect of such an occurrence, depending on the time of day and longevity would be enormous in terms of cancellations and diversions.