Sunday, February 10, 2008

NextGen News

I hope you’ve been keeping up with the news without me. I’m somewhat surprised by how much air traffic control is making the news at the moment. I assumed things would slow down for the late winter/early spring. That was always the slow time of the year for us at Atlanta Center (slow being a relative term.)

I stumbled across the President’s weekly radio address today. The FAA even made it into that forum. Bobby Sturgell, President Bush’s nominee for FAA Administrator, isn’t the only person he can’t get confirmed by the Senate. I read it on Fox News. I never go to the Fox News web site and can’t say why I did this time. It was interesting though. Across the top is a banner advertisement for Levitra. (think Bob Dole and ED.) The next thing to catch your eye is a picture of Hillary Clinton with the caption “House Divided.” When you get to the bottom of the article you’re invited to sign up for a series of email newsletters. One is from Newt Gingrich and one is from Ann Coulter. I had never thought about it before but they would make a lovely couple wouldn’t they ?

The news item that really caught my eye this weekend concerned “NextGen”, the FAA’s (I don’t know what you would call it) idea (?) for the future of National Airspace System (NAS.) I first saw it in Forbes and then it made it to CNN Money.

” The Federal Aviation Administration in August awarded ITT Corp. (NYSE:ITT) a contract worth up to $1.8 billion to build the first portion of the system, dubbed NextGen, that will take nearly 20 years to complete. The agency has said that the new system will help improve operations and limit delays, and is expected to cost between $15 billion and $22 billion.

But an independent industry analysis completed last year forecast that NextGen's software development alone could cost more than $50 billion, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III said Thursday during a House hearing on the FAA's proposed budget for 2009.”

The figures I’ve heard previously for NextGen have been all over the place. I’ve heard $20 billion and I’ve heard $40 billion. But $50 billion for “software development alone” ?

The problem is that no one really knows what NextGen is. And that includes the FAA. It is ill defined as to what it is, much less what it will do for the NAS. If you’ll read the press reports closely you’ll realize that the Press is pretty clueless about it. They’ll mention GPS and/or RNAV like it is actually something new. When in fact, they’ve been around for decades. NextGen reminds me of another FAA program -- Free Flight. Anybody in aviation knows what I’m talking about. The FAA pushed Free Flight just like they are pushing NextGen. Where is it ?

I hate to quote myself but it saves time.

” The concept of “Free Flight” is the folly of the uninformed. I don’t know of a single controller that believes it will work.”

It’s getting harder and harder to find web pages on the FAA’s idea of Free Flight. (The program office used to have their own page.) That’s the thing about ill-defined programs -- they can take on a life of their own. Ask five people what Free Flight is and you’ll get five different answers. NextGen incorporates a lot of the ideas that were supposed to become a reality in Free Flight. The Next Great Idea will incorporate ideas from NextGen that somehow didn’t become reality.

To wrap this up, NextGen is the FAA’s version of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- better known as Star Wars. It’s an irresistible idea and $50 billion dollars is just the start. You might want to ask yourself the same question about SDI. Where is it ?

Don Brown
February 10, 2008

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