Have you heard about NextGen? It’s the FAA’s plan for a Next Generation Air Transportation System, and it’s going to save pilots money, protect the environment, improve safety and generally solve all the world’s problems. It might even help the airlines turn a profit, although that miracle is probably too much to hope for. But there’s one problem with this rosy forecast–no one has any idea what NextGen means.
In my completely unscientific poll of hundreds of active general aviation pilots over the past 3 months, I couldn’t find a single one (me included) who could clearly explain what NextGen is and why it matters. Most of the replies were along the lines of: “I’m tired of hearing about it and I don’t even know what it is.”
How did it get this way?
The FAA deserves much of the blame. While most pilots have come to expect FAA modernization programs to be over-budget and behind schedule (and this one is), NextGen suffers from a more basic problem: a terrible marketing effort. True, NextGen is a huge and complicated undertaking with many different constituencies to please. But there has never been a clear and consistent message about what NextGen means, especially for GA pilots. Indeed, until recently the name itself wasn’t consistent–is it NGATS or NextGen?
In classic Washington style, the FAA has spent far too much time in the weeds talking about technology and processes, and not nearly enough time talking about the big picture. In particular, there is a bewildering array of abbreviations and acronyms to deal with: ADS-B, CATMT, NNEW, NVS, SWIM, AIRE, RNP, etc. Most pilots just want to know, “How will my day-to-day flying change if NextGen happens?” That question has not been answered. To be fair, current FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is probably doing as good a job as anyone, but I sense most pilots have already tuned out.
This is unfortunate. While there’s no doubt that the program is designed primarily for the airlines, NextGen matters for GA pilots too. For better or for worse, it defines the way we will interact with ATC, monitor weather and traffic, and complete our trips. If you’re willing to be optimistic, there could even be some nice trickle-down benefits for your Cessna or Cirrus:
- Pilots will have a real-time display of nearby traffic, just like ATC sees (ADS-B)
- Uplink weather will be available in the cockpit–without subscription fees (FIS-B)
- The FAA claims more direct routing will be possible thanks to more precise navigation (RNP)
- Better weather forecasts will be possible by combining thousands of weather sensors into a single network (NNEW)
This isn’t to say NextGen addresses all the problems of today’s system. At the end of the day, there’s not much you can do about a line of severe thunderstorms over New York at 5pm on a Friday. NextGen also says nothing about the lack of new runways that is a major cause of congestion at some airports. And this is not to mention the significant investment that will be required of aircraft owners (I’ll save that for another day).
But in spite of these drawbacks, I think we need NextGen. Our current radar-based system is old, expensive, inefficient and increasingly unreliable. A more efficient and flexible system that pulled airplanes and ATC into one integrated network would be better for everyone involved. If it’s done correctly, pilots might even rally around it.
But for goodness sake, FAA, make up your mind about what NextGen really means and then go hire a marketing team to sell it!
What do you think? Do you understand NextGen? Do we need it?