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NextGen is About to Transform Aviation

The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is the catalyst for a breathtaking array of improvements that qualify it as one of the most ambitious upgrades of critical infrastructure in U.S. history.


When first conceived by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2004, NextGen was primarily aimed at replacing a badly outdated clearance-based operational control system with a trajectory-based system, utilizing satellite-fed global positioning data to greatly improve aircraft positioning and situational awareness.

Over time, NextGen has evolved to become a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of our national airspace system (NAS). Major new technologies and capabilities are being introduced to completely change how data is collected and shared between air traffic control and aircraft in the air and on the ground. This huge undertaking will result in greater safety, efficiency and cost savings, while reducing environmental impacts and spinning o. a host of other benefits that are not yet fully visualized.

NextGen is well underway. Installation of hardware and software began in the 2000s and is now largely complete, despite a prolonged work shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this foundational phase completed, it is now moving into an operational phase of full integration and implementation of all major planned systems — a phase that is expected to be complete this decade.

Initial operational rollout is underway within the nation’s busiest airspace corridor in the Northeast, including the major airports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Subsequent rollouts are planned for the Denver-to-Northwest and Mid-Atlantic-to-Southeast corridors.

 

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When first conceived by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2004, NextGen was primarily aimed at replacing a badly outdated clearance-based operational control system with a trajectory-based system, utilizing satellite-fed global positioning data to greatly improve aircraft positioning and situational awareness.

Over time, NextGen has evolved to become a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of our national airspace system (NAS). Major new technologies and capabilities are being introduced to completely change how data is collected and shared between air traffic control and aircraft in the air and on the ground. This huge undertaking will result in greater safety, efficiency and cost savings, while reducing environmental impacts and spinning o. a host of other benefits that are not yet fully visualized.

NextGen is well underway. Installation of hardware and software began in the 2000s and is now largely complete, despite a prolonged work shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this foundational phase completed, it is now moving into an operational phase of full integration and implementation of all major planned systems — a phase that is expected to be complete this decade.

Initial operational rollout is underway within the nation’s busiest airspace corridor in the Northeast, including the major airports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Subsequent rollouts are planned for the Denver-to-Northwest and Mid-Atlantic-to-Southeast corridors.

Rebuilding on a Strong Foundation

There is no question that the NAS has worked remarkably well for decades and is still considered the gold standard for air transportation systems. The U.S. operates the world’s largest airspace system — totaling almost 30 million square miles — and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was carrying about 1 billion passengers annually.

Despite all this success, the stresses on the NAS have been growing progressively over the years. According to the FAA, flight delays and congestion throughout the system are costing the economy more than $20 billion each year, a significant hit for an industry that accounts for more than 5% of U.S. gross domestic product.

Efficiency, Data to Change the Game

Air traffic control has long been dependent on radar systems that sweep a given geographic area every 10 to 12 seconds while an aircraft is en route. However, this interval causes a latency period during which the aircraft can travel a considerable distance and even change course before a controller sees the next blip on a screen. Moreover, as the aircraft travels to its destination, air traffic control hands off the flight path and pattern from one controller to the next. This segment-to-segment communication creates enough uncertainty about the exact position of any aircraft that conservative spacing buffers for aircraft have long been required by the FAA. If any aspect of this process is not managed well, it can result in delays and congestion for air traffic.

Under NextGen, satellites will provide near-real-time surveillance using automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) to give controllers a constant stream of information allowing them to see the precise position, direction and speed of all aircraft. Air traffic control can use this more accurate data to optimize flight patterns though all phases of the flight path.

New Vision for Gates, Ramps, Runways

Beyond the data and IT infrastructure upgrades, NextGen will spin off a wide range of other improvements — potentially even changing the geographic footprint and dimensional standards of airports. By optimizing air traffic, a number of efficiencies can trickle down to ease congestion at gates and within all phases of airport operations such as faster turnarounds, queue metering and optimized scheduling and gate management for efficient departures.

The migration toward satellite-based systems also could free up valuable real estate on airfields, as ground-based very high frequency omnidirectional range (VOR) radar systems are retired. An estimated 40% of VORs could be removed, freeing up space for additional airfield taxiways, high-speed exits, aeronautical development or other changes that could enable better ground maneuvering, cost savings and revenue generation.

The improved capacity and operations at the airport will presumably lead to optimized scheduling and an increase in traffic, which will spin o. multiple considerations for the airfield. High-speed taxiway exits will help further improve airport capacity and allow for the increased traffic. Improvements to aircraft avionics and pilot displays will lessen the limitations of low-visibility operations, which will require improvements to low-visibility taxiway routes. And engineered material arresting systems (EMAS) that stop aircraft that overrun a runway will be needed as traffic is increased.

Integrated Global System

Under the NextGen vision, a flexible and integrated system of data collection and sharing will take our aviation system on a giant leap into the future, enabling and equipping airports for the next generation of aviation challenges and opportunities. This will include the increased urban air mobility component, inclusion of sustainable alternative fuels and even consideration of space vehicle operations.

By the 2030s, every airport in North America will be linked, utilizing the same technology and standardized air traffic control procedures being used worldwide. With optimized solutions driving increased revenue and improving the passenger experience, NextGen will be the catalyst that takes our industry into a future that has long been envisioned.

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2022 Special Report


Authors

Brian Quinlan, PE

Department Manager Civil

Kyle Roberts

Aviation Projects Director