NextGen Progress: More Than Youd Think


Although NextGen has come under fire from Congress for being a troubled program, the head of the FAA’s ambitious modernization program said Wednesday that the agency is making progress on the system’s individual components, which together comprise a massive $20 billion investment.

Speaking before the 58th Aircraft Electronics Association Convention in Dallas in the opening address, the FAA’s chief NextGen officer, Michael Whitaker, told a technically savvy audience that six years and $6 billion into what will be a 20-year-transition, NextGen is progressing “better than you think.”

“The first phase of NextGen has been very much focused on updating the basic technology that we operate in our airspace,” Whitaker said. That means upgrades to computers, displays and software in centers, TRACONs and towers and the basic ground infrastructure for ADS-B.

Last month, for example, a program called ERAM was completed, Whitaker said, which forms the foundation for automation and data processing for flight tracking and digital communication. That basic framework will allow faster, more efficient communications and more flexible routing. In addition, the final elements of the ADS-B ground network have also been installed as of last fall. “So if you look at the three elements of NextGen, navigation, communication and surveillance, we’re moving down the road pretty quickly in all three of these areas,” Whitaker said. “For navigation, over half the routes in the system now are GPS routes. In communication, we have equipped 1900 airline aircraft and they’re now testing departure clearances [via datalink],” Whitaker said. The FAA is also planning a series of “metroplex” route structures around major cities and one of these has already been implemented in Houston, saving what Whitaker claims is about $6 million a year in fuel costs.

Although he didn’t acknowledge the lukewarm uptake of ADS-B directly, in urging the shop owners and avionics manufacturers in the audience to encourage their customers to equip with ADS-B, Whitaker implied that installers play a critical role in NextGen’s success. “When you’re dealing with this level of complexity, collaboration is the only way to work through those complex issues in an effective way,” he said, noting that the FAA works with controllers and an industry council to address NextGen implementation snags.

And Whitaker remains adamant that the 2020 deadline for ADS-B equipage won’t be allowed to slip.

“Keeping that 2020 deadline in place is absolutely imperative. And it’s in everybody’s interest to keep it in place, ” he said.