The modern air traveler has come to expect safety and convenience with no delays at a reasonable price. However, the service that we have taken for granted might become impossible to achieve unless major changes are made to the entire aviation system.
More planes are flying today than ever before. As a result, air space becomes congested, air traffic controllers overwhelmed, and busy airports struggle to keep flights on time.
In response to these challenges, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation with the authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of civil aviation—is in the process of developing a new aviation transportation system.
Through satellite-based technologies and with the cooperation of entities within the aviation industry, FAA has launched NextGen—a system designed to greatly improve safety, capacity, and efficiency of the nation’s air travel infrastructure while offering ecologically friendly procedures that reduce fuel burn, carbon emissions, and noise.
In addition, NextGen also aims to update air traffic control (ATC) with the technologies of the 21st century.
Out With the Old
Despite improvements in various technologies and a significant increase in the number of flights, the air travel system has remained the same for decades.
For example, upon leaving the gate, pilots begin communication with ATC to obtain routing information.
After takeoff the plane makes contact with the Departure Control center—an ATC facility typically located within the surrounding area of a large airport. This center will control the aircraft within a 35-mile radius to 60-mile radius of the airport, and up to 23,000 feet.
At this altitude the plane needs to establish another connection with a different controller that will guide the plane to its cruising altitude.
When it arrives at its cruising altitude, the aircraft will enter air corridors that resemble virtual highways in the sky. The plane will continue its prearranged flight path by following these highways which in turn are limited by radar on the ground. The radar establishes radio-controlled air space in which the planes fly.
Every time the aircraft enters a radio controlled air space, the pilots need to change radio frequencies, and this could happen more than 25 times during a coast-to-coast flight. Moreover, during the flight, the plane is required to make adjustments to its speed and direction.
External circumstances such as bad weather may force a plane to divert from the flight path. According to FAA bad weather accounts for 70 percent of all traffic delays, often causing a ripple effect throughout airports across the country.
As it approaches its final destination, the airplane will make multiple preparations for landing by continually decreasing speed, descending, and leveling off—a process known as the “step-down approach.” This procedure repeats again and again until the pilot is given permission to touch down.
The NextGen Difference
The aim of NextGen is to replace the current ground-based ATC system with one that is satellite based. This transformation is not only more efficient, it will also be essential for the safety of passengers.
Before takeoff and after landing, the airplane maneuvers on runways and taxiways guided by air traffic controllers. The FAA has a variety of systems that allow controllers to see traffic moving at the airport.
Airports now use the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X, or ASDE-X, which receives its information from different sources such as radar and other transmissions. ATC monitors this information in the airport tower, guiding the decisions of the controller. However, in bad weather the radar may show false objects on the screen, interfering with ATC decisions and procedures.
NextGen, on the other hand, employs the Global Positioning System (GPS) to find the precise location of aircrafts and other ground vehicles. This information gets transmitted not only to the control tower, but also to a monitor in the cockpit allowing for a faster and more accurate exchange of routing data.
With much of the coordinate information available directly to pilots, less radio time with ATC is required—decreasing the possibility of communication errors. When pilots and ATC can see this information simultaneously, automation is used in setting the order of departures, thus reducing delays even in bad weather.
Utilizing the ground capabilities of the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-X)—a runway safety program used to prevent conflicts on the ground—NextGen takes it a step further incorporating a software tool called Surface Management. This extends the surveillance capabilities of ASDE-X beyond runways and taxiways to ramp areas, thus improving the position awareness between the airport control tower, the airline ramp management crews, and the airline operations centers.
Under the current system when a plane takes off, radar sends signals that bounce off the fuselage to calculate the craft’s position. However, since radar information can be off by as much as two miles, the system accounts for the discrepancy by separating planes at least three miles or more apart. With NextGen pilots will be able to know their position down to a few hundred feet.
Through precise navigational procedures, planes will use multiple departure paths. Add to this the aid of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B)—another aspect of NextGen that also relies on GPS signals—and a craft will be quickly guided to its cruising altitude.
This system will see a plane swiftly navigating out of the busy airspace over the airport ascending steadily, thereby using less fuel, saving time, and increasing airport capacity.
The idea behind the ADS-B is to give pilots information that previously only controllers on the ground were able to see: the aircraft’s location, the location of other aircraft, as well as graphical and textual weather information on a moving map. This valuable information allows pilots to get decisions quickly and safely.
In addition, ADS-B will allow planes to fly closer together without sacrificing safety, thereby increasing airspace capacity.
Flight paths across the country will no longer be limited by radar on the ground and air highways. Planes will take direct flight paths accounting for the wind speed, the distance of their final destinations, the surrounding air traffic, and the most current weather information which is displayed in the cockpit via the ADS-B.
Arrivals and Departures Via NextGen Tools
Hundreds of miles away form the airport, planes wait for permission to land. Under the old ATC system, planes might circle the airport for quite awhile before they could descend, wasting fuel in the process. However, the FAA has now developed tools to safely bring aircraft to their destination airport as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Tailored Arrivals (TA) is one of these tools that allow controllers to look over an aircraft’s flight path and tailor it to avoid certain conditions that might otherwise slow it down, such as bad weather and restricted airspace.
For example, earlier this year the San Francisco International Airport saw more then 250 TAs, resulting in an estimated 27,350 gallons of fuel savings. Yet, this fuel conservation is not the only benefits NextGen brings to airlines and the environment.
In preparation for descent, the plane uses yet another on-board software tool—The Continuous Descent Arrival (CDA)—that keeps the most efficient altitude for as long as possible before the plane begins its approach to the airport.
This results in a smooth descent—rather than the stepped-down approach required by current procedures—saving time and money while reducing carbon emissions, noise, and holding patterns.
With this new tool alone Delta Airlines saved an estimated 200 pounds to 1,250 pounds of carbon and 10 gallons to 60 gallons of fuel per arrival into Atlanta’s airport during flight trials, according to FAA.
At the time of touch down, the plane’s ADS-B will provide the crew with their runway exit, taxi route, and assigned gate allowing passengers to reach the gate faster and more efficiently.
The Future of NextGen
The NextGen tool box is currently being tested in many of the major national airports, from ground control to in-flight and landing procedures. These new features have demonstrated improved traffic flow on the ground as well as to increased capacity in airspace on busy routes.
JFK and Memphis airports have participated in tests of new Surface Management programs to let greater aircraft flow on the ground.
To get a feel for the whole NextGen system in action, check out Florida’s airports. They have become the test centers for what nationwide deployment of NextGen will look like. Continuous Descent Arrivals are tested on the routes between state airports (including Miami, Orlando, and Daytona Beach) and the New York area airports (Teterboro, JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark).
The application of NextGen has demonstrated increased efficiency in coordinating the crowded corridors of the East Coast, once again saving money for the airlines and time for the passengers.
Since the safe and efficient use of airspace depends on how well the different systems in NextGen communicate with each other, the FAA has developed the System Wide Information Management (SWIM)—a platform that will allow this to happen.
For example, if a U.S. plane is on its way to Europe, SWIM will enable foreign and domestic aviation procedures and regulations to talk to each other.
Next Gen is expected to be fully integrated and operational nationwide by 2018.
In the meantime, as various aspects of NextGen make their way into the nation’s airports passengers may already find flights to be smoother and arrivals more timely, making for better fuel efficiency and more reasonable ticket rates. But, most importantly, NextGen will make for safer travel from gate to gate.