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NextGen: What Does It Mean for Business Aviation?

July 17, 2014

Steve Brown, NBAA’s chief operating officer, has a unique perspective on NextGen, having previously served as the FAA’s vice president of operations planning and associate administrator for air traffic services. Recently, Brown took time to answer some questions about what the new-generation air traffic management system will mean for business aviation.

On balance, will the complete rollout of NextGen be beneficial for business aviation?

NBAA believes FAA’s NextGen air traffic management program has the potential to provide benefits for business aviation, including boosting National Airspace System (NAS) capacity for all users. But there are still many issues to be resolved, including what is required of operators to meet FAA equipage deadlines, what the costs will be and what services operators can expect to receive for having installed ADS-B and other NextGen technologies (for aircraft and air traffic control).

What specific concerns do you have about the technical aspects of NextGen?

One of our concerns is the absence of a final set of standards for avionics to support controller-pilot data link communications, and some aspects of digital communication in the future. Until those standards are in place, avionics manufacturers are unable to produce products in volume.

Setting standards for avionics always seems to be a chicken and egg situation. Manufacturers at any given point can build the hardware and configure the software, but it becomes a question of what do you really want to do with it? The answer to that question is somewhat dependent on what kind of procedures FAA and airport authorities are going to want pilots to use. The process involves a number of elements, including airspace configuration, air traffic controller inputs, airport operating hours and capacities and runway configurations. There are a lot of interrelated parts, all of which comes down to the procedures that are likely to be used because the specific procedures have everything to do with the software that’s built into the avionics. At some point those decisions have to be made.

In addition, FAA fight standards needs to level the playing field when it comes to allowing business aircraft to be certified for the same sorts of procedures as commercial airlines. Currently there are gaps in the field not attributable to technical issues that are not acceptable to our community. In addition, a recognition that we will always be in a mixed equipage environment, and FAA’s willingness to implement procedures that are useable by business aviation operators is critical to the success of NextGen.

Many experts predict that there is not enough shop capacity to get all affected aircraft retrofitted in time to meet the ADS-B Out equipage deadline of 2020. How big a problem will that be?

There are approximately 18,000 business aircraft in the U.S. fleet, and fewer than 10 percent of those aircraft have ADS-B installed now. But by 2020, many operators should be equipped, many of which will be international operators because of the density of the European airspace and the fact that a lot of developing parts of the world are going directly to ADS-B and GPS navigation because they’ve never had a significant VOR/ILS infrastructure. The more you fly outside the United States, the more you are going to need to be ADS-B equipped. Even domestically, some operators might risk losing their ability to operate in much of the NAS if they do not do not install ADS-B Out by 2020, unless FAA grants exemptions or makes some other accommodations.

What do you anticipate will happen with ADS-B In?

Currently, ADS-B In is optional, and it’s uncertain if it will ever become required. My personal view is that there are some compelling benefits for ADS-B In in high-density airspace because it will provide enhanced situational awareness when flying along preferred oceanic tracks, in areas around major airports and in some congested enroute sectors.

In the future, the real benefit will be for aircraft that spend the vast majority of their operating lives in high-density airspace. A selling point for ADS-B In, if FAA will implement it, will enable reduced separation requirements, providing more optimal flight trajectories, lower fuel burn, etc. Pilots will be able to do a lot of self-spacing over the oceanic tracks if they have the ability to know where other traffic is.

In the final analysis, don’t operators need to have a business case for equipping for NextGen?

Yes. Operators will weigh the cost of upgrades against the benefits of receiving real-time traffic advisories, weather updates and being able to use satellite-based routing and procedures. At the end of the day, whether you’re a military general, an airline ops guy, or a company with a business aircraft, you’ve still got to have a business case that makes sense to you.