Accelerating NextGen Today to Create a Better Tomorrow

Accelerating NextGen Today to Create a Better Tomorrow

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. airline industry drove $1.5 trillion annually in domestic economic activity and supported more than 10 million American jobs. U.S. carriers were operating a daily average of 28,000 flights around the world, carrying more than 2.4 million passengers and over 58,000 tons of cargo every day. Perhaps more than most sectors, aviation has been upended by the pandemic. U.S. passenger volumes are down 70 percent from a year ago.

While air cargo carriers like ours and some passenger carriers with cargo belly capacity have continued to move goods around the globe, maintaining our operations during the pandemic has been exceedingly difficult given the rapidly changing patchwork of COVID-related restrictions and other regulations that vary significantly from country to country, and even among various U.S. states. The U.S. Departments of Transportation and State have demonstrated strong leadership through their ongoing efforts to keep commerce flowing and ensuring that international supply chains remain open and secure.

This has been critical as the country has become even more reliant on aircargo, express delivery, and e-commerce to deliver the food, pharmaceuticals, supplies, and other products that businesses and people depend on. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deserves tremendous credit for keeping our National Airspace System (NAS)operating and air controllers safe during the pandemic. While it necessarily focuses on these important missions in this time of national disruption, the agency must also look to the future—preparing for the day we can put this public health and economic crisis behind us and focus once again on increasing the efficiency of the ever-important air transportation system and the global commerce that it drives.

For our industry, while we continue to address the pandemic’s various challenges, we must also look beyond as the industry returns to pre-COVID levels of traffic. There is much work to be done. Besides the demands on the NAS caused by increased passenger and cargo volume, we must also successfully and safely integrate fast-moving, new technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems, urban air mobility, supersonic aircraft, and commercial space launches. Through NextGen, a multi-year modernization of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, the FAA and airlines have already invested ina series of air traffic management initiatives to boost efficiency and capacity while simultaneously enhancing safety. We need to continue the work that has already begun and use this temporary dip in flight activity to accelerate the realization of key NextGen benefits, such as increased airspace capacity. This opportunity is akin to completing important road construction at night or whenever traffic is light. 

Among NextGen’s many potential benefits is a significant reduction in fuel usage and resulting carbon emissions. The aviation industry together has committed to ambitious environmental goals, including zero net CO2 emissions growth starting next year and a 50 percent carbon emissions reduction by the year 2050.

For our industry, while we continue to address the pandemic’s various challenges, we must also look beyond as the industry returns to pre-COVID levels of traffic

NextGen will be a critical tool in meeting those benchmarks, with the efficiencies from its surface management component alone expected to eliminate 313 million gallons of fuel and more than 3 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to the FAA. That estimate well may be conservative, with the industry estimating between 5 percent and 12 percent fuel and emissions savings from NextGen. Even a savings of 5 percent would yield a reduction of 10 million metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of taking 2.1 million cars off the road.

America already has the safest ATC system in the world. Yet, it is not the most efficient. Our ATC system relies heavily on WWII-era technology that costs air travelers and the U.S. economy billions of dollars every year. According to the FAA and a consortium of universities, U.S. flight delay costs have exceeded $20 billion every year since 2007 and exceeded $30 billion in both 2018 and 2019. NextGen will allow us to lead the world in both safety and efficiency.

NextGen modernization would begin with DataComm communications, which evolves from our current reliance on voice communications from controllers and pilots to one that is technology based. Moving to a system using secure text messages between towers and aircraft will allow the transmission of flight plans, clearances, advisories, flight crew requests, reports, and other essential information to be exchanged with the touch of a button. The change from voice to texts will enhance safety, reduce the chance of read back error when relaying information, and allow controllers to send similar instructions to several aircraft at the same time.

From an operational standpoint, DataComm will help carriers stay on schedule, reroute around bad weather, and help deliver passengers and cargo to their destinations faster.  Because flights will operate more efficiently and have shorter elapsed times, DataComm can help reduce overall fuel consumption and benefit the environment. The first phases of DataComm implementation at select airports across the country have proven beneficial. To meet the system’s full potential, we must expand what is already working to additional airports and also to the enroute phase of flight.

We also need to increase the use of technologies found in virtually every automobile and smartphone. Today’s ATC system is heavily reliant on the radar to surveil and manage air traffic. It is time we migrate to a system using more precise Global Positioning System (GPS) technology through a program referred to as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).

ADS-B gives controllers a more precise depiction of an aircraft’s position, allowing for improved safety and increased capacity. In FAA-controlled oceanic space, ADS-B is already being evaluated to replace sole reliance on aircraft radio positioning reports. Enhanced surveillance capabilities will reduce separation distances and aircraft emissions while increasing the overall safety, efficiency, and fuel-savings for aircraft operating in U.S.-controlled oceanic airspace.

We should also evolve Performance Based Navigation so we can utilize more precise GPS procedures, allowing operators to navigate using performance standards on any desired flight path within the coverage of ground- or space-based navigational aids. Doing so will provide the ability to closely monitor performance during an operation. It will also enhance safety and efficiency while increasing route options and improving airport access during bad weather.

In addition, there are enhancements that can be made to datasharing and aircraft management tools, including those typically referred to as “the three Ts”: Traffic Flow Management System, Time Based Flow Management, and Terminal Flight Data Manager. The underlying principle of these enhancements is to identify the best times for aircraft to depart and then to weave them into the stream of aircraft that are already in flight in an integrated manner.

Taken together, NextGen modernization would provide the foundation for safer and more efficient operations for airlines and other system users for years to come. It would also create a better experience for passengers and air cargo carriers, while creating a more durable and competitive economy for all Americans. These are worthy benefits in the best of times. Despite today’s challenges, we need to accelerate what has already begun. Our ATC system and our nation will be better off when we do.

Weekly Brief

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