NextGen: Who Knows When?

Many National Business Travel Association convention attendees cut out on the morning of the last day to avoid overbooked fights and delays, but I tend to stick around for the final education sessions. Along with a few stragglers, I attended the Federal Aviation Administration panel discussion last Wednesday hoping to gain a bit more clarity or information on the next-generation air traffic control system (NextGen), or to learn something new. Thirty-four slides later, I hadn't.  [more]

Much of the conversation involved describing what NextGen would accomplish rather than what accomplishments have been made, perhaps because there aren't any to boast about. In an attempt to relate NextGen to travelers, FAA enterprise architect Paul Fontaine focused mostly on reducing delays and increasing on-time performance at airports. As such, several questions arose from audience member Evan Konwiser, cofounder of FlightCaster, asking for further explanation on other methods to help these problems, like building more runways without waiting for Congress to approve NextGen.

"I don't think anyone denies that NextGen is needed and is important for the future of our aviation system, but a lot of people have also talked about what actually causes flight delays [related] to runway capacity not airspace capacity ... what we really need is more concrete," Konwiser said. "You don't see any of that in the proposal. The FAA controls the slots; they should be increasing capacity, but frankly that is what is causing delays in the airspace system nationally--over scheduling in airports. What is the FAA stance on that? And do we really expect NextGen to be a save-all or should we actually tackle what's going on?"

Fontaine responded, "Clearly yes, you have to add more concrete to add more capacity." The FAA in the last seven years completed 13 runway constructions, improving more than 20 miles of runway pavement, according to his slides. However, adding better technology like NextGen to accurately navigate through weather will be most advantageous to pilots and air traffic control in order to improve delays, Fontaine attested. "The big one that I think impacts us all is weather. Clearly improved operations in low visibility conditions is one of those big savings," said Fontaine.

Outside of the tired "my car's Global Positioning System (GPS) is better than what's in aircraft today" rhetoric, some others attending the conference weighed in on NextGen as well.

"Last month, Congress delayed consideration of FAA reauthorization for the fifteenth time over a very narrow wavering slot dispute," said Sabre chairman and CEO Sam Gilliland. "Narrow issues that are holding up the bill that would bring broad national benefits. Our industry has been through a great deal in the past few years and while the economic crisis helped to improve the visibility of travel programs within the corporate environment, we have a long way to go to improve the overall understanding and perception of our industry's value. It's clear to me that the travel industry lacks the cohesion and collaboration that other industries like agriculture, energy, banking and pharmaceuticals all enjoy."

NBTA Global executive director and COO Mike McCormick said, "This bill provides sorely needed funding and oversight to complete the modernization of the nation's air traffic control system, which will reduce congestion and flight times for all. We continue to be frustrated by the extension after extension of this bill with no resolution."

"The problem is cost" and there isn't a "strong cost-benefit analysis on NextGen out there right now," said Gregory McDonald, vice president of Cornerstone Government Affairs.