FAA reaches NextGen milestone with ADS-B rule


The long-awaited final rule on the specifications of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out (ADS-B out was released by the Federal Aviation Administration with an expected equipage costs of between USD2 and USD6.2 billion. The rule clears the way for manufacturers to begin making the equipment. If ultimately fielded, the new system increases cockpit situational awareness and make pilots less dependent on air traffic controllers that has been on the National Transportation Safety Board 'Most Wanted' list for years.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released the final rule on the specifications of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out (ADS-B out), paving the way for manufacturers to produce the equipment.
  • The estimated equipage costs for ADS-B out range from USD2 to USD6.2 billion, which has raised concerns among airlines about the business case for industry equipage.
  • The ADS-B system aims to increase cockpit situational awareness and reduce dependence on air traffic controllers, addressing a long-standing issue on the National Transportation Safety Board's 'Most Wanted' list.
  • Airlines are skeptical about the benefits of ADS-B out, as previous investments in NextGen equipment were rendered obsolete due to aircraft retirements before implementation.
  • The FAA plans to incentivize equipage by prioritizing aircraft equipped with ADS-B technology, but industry stakeholders are urging faster implementation of key technologies to realize the benefits of NextGen sooner.
  • The FAA has awarded contracts worth USD4.4 billion to Boeing, General Dynamics, and ITT for NextGen projects, including large-scale demonstrations and the development of 4-D operations and modernized weather services.

Airlines greeted the news with suspicion, saying FAA would have to prove the business case for industry equipage. It has become a sore point, as the Administration has funded other multi-billion transportation programmes considered non-sore by the airline sector, with very little support for equipage. This is despite the fact it is airline passengers and other users that pay into the Aviation Trust Fund that ultimately funds NextGen and the FAA. The airlines failed to gain USD4 billion for NextGen equipage in last year's stimulus bill.

"With an FAA cost estimate of between USD2.5 billion and USD6.2 billion, ATA is carefully reviewing the ADS-B rule, and will have no further comment until that in-depth review is complete," said Air Transport Association President and CEO James May. "ATA has said repeatedly that any rule requiring this type of equipage and expense must be based on a solid business case in which the true benefits and real costs are fully understood and justified. We are hopeful that the FAA regulatory evaluation supporting the rule will be made available soon in order to help facilitate our review."

New equipment at Southwest and American will already be equipped and both are planning on retrofitting older aircraft. But many others are questioning whether the actual benefits will be big enough to cover the expense. Their skepticism stems from the fact that most airlines have equipped, preparing for NextGen in the past only to see the aircraft retired before being able to use the NextGen equipment.

The FAA, on the other hand, says it will "incentivise" equipage by giving priority to those aircraft equipped with the satellite-based technology in what is known as the best-equipped-best-served policy. Aircraft must be equipped by 2020, but industry is urging faster implementation of key technologies to gain the benefits of NextGen sooner.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood promised some, if not terribly well-defined help, in equipage and has mentioned tax breaks in the past. "We have the White House's attention on this, significant enough people where there could be some opportunities for us to be helpful to them along the way," Mr LaHood said. "If we want the airlines to be a part of it, we have to move things along."

Stop over-scheduling - Babbitt

NextGen promised a 21% delay reduction by 2018, according to the FAA, but Administrator Randy Babbitt threw that into doubt when he said that airlines will have to stop over-scheduling at congested airports if real progress is to be made. The final rule, developed with extensive input from the aviation community, requires aircraft flying in certain airspace to broadcast their position via ADS-B by 2020. The rule mandates that the broadcast signal meet specific requirements in terms of accuracy, integrity, power and latency.

In a report released on 27-May-2010, the General Accountability Office noted that the percentage of flights that arrived at least 15 minutes after their scheduled time or were canceled or diverted, declined six percentage points from 2007 to 2009, according to DOT data, largely on the decline in demand with the economy. "Even with this decrease in delays, during 2009, at least one in four U.S. passenger flights arrived late at 5 airports - Newark Liberty International (Newark), LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy (JFK), Atlanta Hartsfield International (Atlanta), and San Francisco International - and these late arrivals had an average delay time of almost an hour or more," said the agency. "In addition to these airports having the highest percentage of flights with delayed arrivals, these 5 airports, along with Chicago O'Hare International and Philadelphia International (Philadelphia), were also the source of most of the departure delays within FAA's air traffic control system."

GAO also recounted the Department of Transportation's track record in fielding NextGen promises noting that fielding of equipment and air traffic management improvements, could reduce delays over the next two-to-three years and are generally being implemented at the airports that contribute to the most delays in the system. But, said the agency, FAA's target of an 88% system-wide, on-time arrival rate may be reliable since it masks the wide variation in airport performance.

It suggests, instead of system-wide standards, the FAA create airport-specific performance targets to better reflect system performance. The agency also questioned FAA's modeling which shows that even with full NextGen implementation Atlanta, Washington Dulles and Philadelphia will be unable to meet targets without a significant reduction in demand. That could lead the way for a return to slot auctions favored by the Bush Administration but vilified by the industry.

"This rule gives the green light for manufacturers to begin building the onboard equipment that will allow our air traffic controllers to know where aircraft are with greater precision and reliability," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "That is one of the key elements of NextGen that will improve the safety and efficiency of flight."

Additional ADS-B services should allow pilots to view cockpit displays to see the location of other aircraft in the sky around them. ADS-B displays are envisioned that will show pilots where they are in relation to bad weather and terrain - even at night or in conditions with poor visibility - and provide flight information, including temporary flight restrictions, which allow pilots to plan safe, more efficient routes.

Some of this information is now being broadcast free to aircraft equipped with ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico, South Florida and in the airspace above Louisville, Philadelphia and Juneau, Alaska. Those areas were chosen as key sites to roll out ADS-B owing to challenges presented by vast stretches of water, rugged terrain and traffic congestion. These areas also are populated by aircraft already equipped with ADS-B. The nationwide rollout of ADS-B ground stations will be complete in 2013.

By 2020, the FAA will require ADS-B equipment for aircraft flying in airspace including Classes A, B and C, around busy airports and above 10,000 feet.

More NextGen contracts awarded

Meanwhile, FAA awarded USD4.4 billion in NextGen contracts to Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT to cover 10 years of work. The three contracts, like one for USD280 million awarded last month to CSSI Inc, are part of System Engineering 2020 (SE2020). Two more contracts are expected under SE2020, which has a ceiling of USD7 billion, making it the largest set of awards in FAA history. Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT will conduct large-scale demonstrations, including the use of aircraft as flying laboratories, to see how NextGen concepts, procedures and technologies can be integrated into the current system.

The FAA and the companies will work to develop and demonstrate new procedures in four dimensions, adding the element of time to the current three-dimensional profile of an aircraft's latitude, longitude and altitude. Introducing time to this profile means that under NextGen, pilots and controllers will know not only where an aircraft is with greater precision but when the aircraft is supposed to be there. Unlike the current system of "roads in the sky," 4-D operations will allow aircraft to fly from Point A to Point B more directly, while taking into consideration factors such as heavy traffic and bad weather.

Other work to be performed by Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT includes the development and rollout of modernised weather services. NextGen weather imaging will allow pilots and controllers to see bad weather stratified by different altitudes, giving them a more detailed and accurate picture of severe weather conditions. The improved information also means that pilots and controllers won't have to interpret weather information, allowing them to plan safer routes.

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