FAA to step into NextGen with avionics

By 2020, all aircraft flying in the country's most congested airspace should be fitted with satellite-based avionics that will allow air traffic controllers to use satellite systems rather than radar to monitor flights, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed Oct. 2.

The Global Positioning System-based surveillance systems are a cornerstone of FAA's NextGen modernization plan, which the agency hopes to complete by 2025. Officials said the new Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which uses transponders aboard planes and GPS satellites, is 10 times more accurate than the current radar system.

"Aviation must take the big step into the next generation of technology," acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell said in a statement. "It's safer and more accurate. Satellite technology is here to stay."

The change would mean more precision flight patterns, less congestion, a decline in delays and safer flights, the agency has said.

In late August, FAA awarded ITT a $207 million three-year contract to integrate and engineer the ADS-B system. If optioned by the agency, ITT will also operate and maintain the system after deployment through September 2025 for a total of $1.86 billion. Through the agreement, the company will build ADS-B ground stations and own and operate the equipment, and FAA will pay subscription charges for ADS-B broadcasts transmitted to properly equipped aircraft and air traffic control facilities.

Commercial airlines have expressed support for ADS-B, but they also voiced concerns about the costs of fitting aircraft with the new equipment. The Air Transport Association, the airline industry's largest trade group and lobby, contends that general aviation, or noncommercial, aircraft are not paying their fair share under the current tax based fund-raising scheme and ATA has been lobbying for the inclusion of user fees as part of the FAA fund-raising structure.

"Initial indications are that the [notice of proposed rule-making] appears to be in line with industry expectations and is an important step on the path to NextGen," said James May, president and chief executive officer of ATA. "But we do face a dilemma. On the one hand, we commend FAA for recognizing the need to aggressively transition to NextGen, but on the other, Congress is failing to create the needed funding reforms to equitably pay for that transition."

House lawmakers and general aviation advocacy groups have been locked in a debate with ATA and the Bush administration about whether user fees should be included in the FAA funding structure.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), which represents and lobbies for more than 8,000 businesses that operate noncommercial airlines, said it also supports the move.

"Although general aviation aircraft avoid busy airspace and airports, NBAA welcomes the introduction of ADS-B technology because of its ability to enhance aviation safety and increase available system capacity," said Ed Bolen, the group's president and CEO.

The proposed rule is open to public comment for 90 days and is scheduled to become final by late 2009.

Ben Bain writes for Federal Computer Week, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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