FAA's High-Tech Next Steps
January 7, 2013
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  • By Fawn Johnson

    The Federal Aviation Administration finally got a break. The acting administrator for the last year, Michael Huerta, was confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term to run the agency last week. His nomination finally cleared when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., lifted his objection to the nomination. (DeMint now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation.)

    By all accounts, Huerta is more than qualified for the job. He has been at the FAA since 2010 and has served previous stints at major ports in New York City and San Francisco. He replaces former FAA administrator Randy Babbitt, who resigned after a drunken driving arrest a year ago. Babbitt’s demise was the perfect, if ironic, complement to the years of uncertainty in the aviation community over a long-stalled FAA bill that finally passed last year.

    Now it’s time to think about the FAA’s next steps, and they are big-time high-tech. Huerta will be charged with overseeing the transition to GPS-based air traffic control system from the current radar-based system. He also must integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, which carries with it a host of delicate issues about privacy and aviation markets. Technology enthusiast Mitch Joel says unmanned aircraft are “the dawn of a new industry.” Not too much pressure, there.

    Let’s not forget the day-to-day funding of the FAA, which could be on the chopping block by some 8 percent if lawmakers don’t reach a deal on the automatic spending cuts in the next two months.

    Still, the outlook for the FAA is better than it has been in years with the aviation bill and a confirmed leader in place. How can the agency take advantage of the limited breather it has before the next crisis comes along? What are the most important actions the agency should take? How can NextGen air traffic control best be spurred along? What should the FAA do about unmanned aerial systems? Are there other issues that could trip up the agency? What advice do you have for Huerta as he begins his term in earnest?


    JANUARY 10, 2013 9:35 AM

    Challenges at the FAA
    By Greg Principato
    President, Airports Council International-North America

    Congratulations to The Honorable Michael Huerta, sworn in Wednesday as America’s 17th Federal Aviation Administrator! One of the first challenges that Administrator Huerta will need to deal with is how to allocate limited federal resources to a broad range of NextGen system development and implementation. Unless the federal funding landscape changes significantly going forward, it will be essential for FAA to effectively prioritize NextGen investments on operational capabilities where benefits are most likely to accrue. Fortunately, important progress has been made towards this prioritization both through the RTCA’s Task Force 5 and now via the NextGen Advisory Committee. (U.S. airports are fortunate to have extremely capable representation on the NAC with Sue Baer/PANJNY and Kim Day/DEN.)

    With respect to “NowGen” investments, NextGen doesn’t address the fact that critical infrastructure at many of our most important airports is approaching or exceeding its design life. From aging terminals to aging runways, U.S. airports have basic infrastructure maintenance and improvement needs that still must be met. Similarly, despite NextGen advancements, legacy air traffic control systems will still need to be maintained and in some cases, upgraded, until such time that NextGen systems are considered reliable replacements for these systems.

    Regarding unmanned aerial systems, we believe the watch phase needs to be “do no harm.” The increasing use of unmanned aircraft systems in domestic airspace has to be managed in a way that ensures aircraft are not adversely impacted either through loss of airspace access, reduced airspace capacity, increased environmental impacts, or reduced margins of safety. These are extremely tall orders for aircraft that have been typically used in environments where civil aviation considerations have been secondary. From an airport perspective “doing no harm” involves the development of common sense airspace rules that ensure these drones do not affect manned aircraft operations especially during safety critical landing and takeoff phases of flight as well as reasonable limitations on the airports at which drone operations can be based.


    JANUARY 9, 2013 6:02 PM

    The Time for NextGen is Now
    By Nicholas Calio
    President and CEO, Airlines for America

    On behalf of Airlines for America, I applaud the U.S. Senate for confirming Michael Huerta to head the Federal Aviation Administration. The Senate made the right choice given Mr. Huerta’s proven leadership in the public and private sectors, commitment to making the safest aviation system in the world even safer and smarter, and focus on positioning the FAA to deliver NextGen. A4A congratulates Mr. Huerta on his swearing in as the 17th administrator of the FAA.

    As administrator, Mr. Huerta’s challenge will be to focus on delivering the benefits of NextGen to passengers, businesses, and operators now. One of the recommendations of Secretary LaHood’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee (FAAC) and a requirement of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was for the agency to accelerate the deployment of the most cost-beneficial elements of NextGen, including performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures, at the nation’s largest airports. As evidenced by the FAA’s recent Greener Skies initiative at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, PBN procedures can deliver immediate benefits for airlines, passengers and the environment by allowing airlines to leverage existing equipage to operate shorter, more fuel-efficient approaches and departures, thereby reducing congestion and delays, and lowering carbon emissions.

    Mr. Huerta also recognizes that FAA cannot implement NextGen in a vacuum. He has brought all stakeholders to the table – airlines, airports, air traffic controllers, and other federal agencies – in the development of PBN and other NextGen programs. We look forward to continue working with him and other stakeholders to ensure that the many safety, operational and environmental benefits of existing NextGen technologies and procedures are realized at other major U.S. airports as soon as possible.

    This initiative is so important to the U.S. airline industry that we made it one of our top five priorities under a National Airline Policy – a comprehensive proposal that would spur growth and support the integral role the U.S. airline industry plays in our economy. Airlines for America is promoting the need for a National Airline Policy nationwide and is encouraging passengers to sign a petition in support of NextGen and our other priorities at


    JANUARY 9, 2013 10:45 AM

    Funding and collaboration are the keys
    By Craig L. Fuller
    President and CEO, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

    We all know that living with uncertainty is a challenge—and the FAA has been dealing with uncertainty for quite some time. Administrator Huerta’s confirmation ends some of that. Huerta’s track record as a collaborative problem solver is good news for the general aviation community and the aviation industry as a whole. By actively engaging organizations like RTCA and MITRE, Huerta has helped spur consensus-building on tough issues like NextGen modernization and managing the exploding interest in unmanned aircraft. He’s taken a similar, collaborative approach to supporting the Aviation Rulemaking Committee process for handling issues related to transitioning to a lead-free aviation fuel and simplifying certification rules for small airplanes. It’s an approach that ensures stakeholders have a seat at the table and the policies that emerge make sense in the real world.

    But Huerta’s appointment doesn’t mean an end to uncertainty at the FAA—and we can expect the agency to face some serious challenges in the coming months. Reauthorization was an important step, but much remains unclear about how the economic challenges facing the United States will affect the FAA’s budget and its mission. The reauthorization created a “status quo” budget, but ongoing discussions about how to cut the national debt and fund key programs could still put that in jeopardy. Add to that rising operation costs, the expenses associated with maintaining infrastructure, and the need to keep legacy air traffic control systems functioning during the transition to NextGen, and it’s easy to see that the FAA could be facing a financial crunch.

    As a nation, we really can’t afford to let these issues slow our move toward a more modern and efficient air traffic system—but implementing modernization is no easy task. NextGen is a great example of how policy and technology are thoroughly intertwined. With new technology come important, and inescapable, policy questions about who benefits and who should pay. But the answers to those questions are not straightforward, either. Aviation is vital for a whole range of public- and private-sector services, and modernizing the system requires substantial investments from many groups. The collaborative work taking place through RTCA is critically important to getting the implementation process right, but the FAA is also going to need stable, reliable funding to keep NextGen modernization on track.