The next year looms as a critical period for the U.S. effort to revamp its air traffic management (ATM) system. While some of the core programs are on track to achieve major deployment milestones, the FAA will need to show that it has solved policy and technology headaches that still could stymie progress.
The FAA’s NextGen ATM upgrade plan is expected to increase the efficiency and safety of the aviation system as traffic grows. The target date for full implementation is 2025, and two of the crucial foundation systems are scheduled to be largely completed by the end of this year. Succeeding with these will boost confidence that other NextGen goals can be achieved as planned.
NextGen was launched in 2004, so it is now a relatively mature program. It has gone through a few organizational shake-ups, but despite fears to the contrary, the effort has not faded away. While the sequestration debate cast a cloud over all federal funding in the later months of 2012, Congress and successive administrations have so far supported NextGen funding requests.
Securing funding has been only part of the battle—the FAA also has to deliver the technology and procedures that will be required.
The FAA has experienced both successes and failures in this regard. The en route automation modernization (ERAM) program has suffered multiple delays, and while promising signs have emerged recently, it has threatened to disrupt progress in other areas. Meanwhile, another crucial NextGen foundation—the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) network—is on time and three-quarters deployed.
ADS-B uses GPS-derived positions to give controllers and pilots improved surveillance information.
For the FAA, it will be used initially to complement radar coverage in domestic airspace, as well as to provide coverage over new areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of Alaska. The agency has contracted ITT Exelis to deploy and operate the network of ground stations required for nationwide coverage. This will allow ADS-B “Out” service, providing position data for use in air traffic control. The FAA says the improved “accuracy, integrity and reliability” of ADS-B over radar will enable it to reduce separation standards.
ITT was awarded the ADS-B contract in 2007. The company is scheduled to complete deployment by the end of 2013 and is on target to achieve that goal. ITT estimates 700 ground stations will be needed—647 in the continental U.S., 41 in Alaska, nine in Hawaii and one each in Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As of mid-November, ITT Exelis had constructed 516—or 74%—of the required ground stations. A further 73 stations were either under construction or in the final design stage.