3 min read

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.”

NextGen logo

Sounds great. What is it?

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?

John Zimmerman
26 replies
  1. John Gilbert
    John Gilbert says:

    No product is being sold to a marketplace (where I can choose to purchase it or not).

    If/when Next/Gen becomes a reality, it will succeed what’s in place now.

    This is a Commnications Problem, not a Marketing Problem

  2. Danny Cherry
    Danny Cherry says:

    As an avionics technician for almost 50 years, I understand it. That’s what scares me. NexGen is going to get a lot of people killed. It relys on everyone having the required equipment. What about weekend flyers like J-3s, light sport, etc. If you live in an area such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth, you will not be able to fly. I agree with John Hawkings. When ADS-B becomes a requirement, GA is done.

  3. Alan Goberman
    Alan Goberman says:

    Isn’t one idea with ADS-B that they can get rid of radar and use only your broadcasted positions? What happens when you have an electrical failure over Los Angeles? They don’t even get a primary target?

    So maybe they fix this by not getting rid of radar. Then what’s the point of ADS-B? Just to get better efficiency of IFR helicopter flights to oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico where there was never radar?

  4. tom
    tom says:

    Where is the military on this? Most radars are joint FAA/Norad facilities. Does Norad really want to shut down active sensors and let the ghost riders through? DEA, customs and other alphabet groups might also have an opinion. I wonder what it is?

  5. Dr. Kenneth Nolde
    Dr. Kenneth Nolde says:

    I was a military controller in the 1950s, I went to Aviation Cadets and flew B-52s and F-4s, owned a Piper Cherokee for 15 years and now fly a CTLS. The CT has a Glass cockpit, GPS, XM WX, and an auto pilot. I have grown up in the ATC system for over half a century and I am damned if I know what is going on with Next Gen. ADS-B is illy defined; what is pilot-controller relationship?; what equipment will be required?; what are the costs?; will I be able to fly much as I do today? Getting rid of radar–does this mean that if I don.t squawk I can simply fly as I care? Additionally, those I speak to arond the hanger or at fly-ins, the answer is the same, “I don’t know!”

  6. Ed Walker
    Ed Walker says:

    I’m 71 years young, got my Private in 1969, fly my own C152 from my own grass strip, fly mostly local area, land at only Unicom airports, am quite capable of extended crosscountry flights in VFR conditions using old fashion pilotage. My a/c is very well equiped electronically, which is mostly unused dead weight, but what I’ve seen in print all of that except the R/T will have to be replaced to be in “the system”. For the most part I’m not in “the system” now and have no intention of ever being in the system. I am a pilot that loves the freedom of flight and that is the way that I’ll stay.

  7. Big Bucks
    Big Bucks says:

    I have been a pilot since age 17 now at 50+ years old an aircraft owner 3 times over and currently a Cessna 172 driver-flyer, I took a look at Trade-A-Plane and made a wish list of equipment I would like to have that would make my plane current for the Nex Gen-Stuff. A new glass panel, parachute recovery system, Ipad, Iphone, Ipod, camera system plus recorder, software updates every year, back to school to learn how this all works. Now the price for all this stuff to help me save a few gallons of fuel on my X/C from my hanger to the fuel pump because now my C-172 is too heavy to take-off, price $281,763.34. Yes, the new Nex-Gen will free up the airspace because I will have my plane ground-up to make beer cans.

  8. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    As a pilot for over 30 plus years and an aircraft owner for 20, Next-Gen sounds good, sorta catchy.
    But, what is it ? I think it is too much of a wish list so the bureaucrats can say, “Hey, were doing something, these things take time. We are all knowing and here to help”. They want to keep there job. I remember when the Mirco-Wave System was the answer to all of our problems. What happened to that ? Just more money down the drain.
    Let private industry fix any problems and the govt just regulate the safety aspect. Lets just keep the old stuff because it works and we know how to fix it if it does break. Just like buying a new car. Nice to have but at what price. It still gets you from point A to B.
    I am just very tired that the govt has to continue to enter our lives more and more. Why ? What happened to the spirit of doing things ourselves without Big-Brother watching.

  9. robert stansfield
    robert stansfield says:

    I have been a GA pilot for 40 years. An instructor for about 30. Like all of us we have seen ideas come an go. But what remains is the “new” requirements. While I love to teach and to fly, I am thinking of hanging up my wings. While we can not stop progress, sometimes “progress” destroys the very reason we learned to fly. When flying becomes so complex, where is the enjoyment? The little boy stearing through the fence and dreaming about flying will be gone.

  10. Steve Pankonin
    Steve Pankonin says:

    All I can see is excessive cost. I made a 27 hour round trip from Oregon to Minn. this summer and never talked to one FAA personal. Weather was obtained via computer, and looking out the window. I did not land at any control towered airport, and navigation primarily by maps backed up with handheld GPS. The ABS required equipment would not have come into play anywhere.

  11. Howard Billman
    Howard Billman says:

    When ADS-B becomes mandatory in 2020 I’ll be 83 years old and probably will not be a PIC….. but, if I am, I think this system will do a lot for me and my 182. AOPA is a great advocate and they are attempting to show the FAA that pilots will accept the additional costs when we pilots can realize the benefits… Capstone has been in operation for nearly a decade and the Alaskan pilots are true advocates of the system.

  12. Tod Lanham
    Tod Lanham says:

    I understand it, at least I think I do. I have presented on this subject a few different times. Having just retired from the FAA, after 24 years as an air traffic controller, did not give me this insight, it was a self education for a little over a year that gave me the understanding. It is not easy to figure this out but the information is there you just have to search for it. NextGen is not going to fix any perceived Air Traffic Control problem or make any delay shorter. The delay is at the airport NextGen won’t make the separation standards any less than they are today, not unless the FAA agrees that RADAR separation today in the terminal environment is based on a 6 second update compared to when NextGen is implemented it will be a 1 second update, but this then gets into a complex computation of runway acceptance rate. Two miles separation would work if visibility is good and runways are dry and there are good high speed turnoffs.

    The two modes of implementation, 1090ES and UAT is a disaster. While UAT for general aviation below FL180 looks good for the majority you must look at where you are going to fly and what your needs are. For instance I live in Michigan and if I depart and want to go east directly to Buffalo, New York I am going to penetrate Canadian airspace and in the year of 2015 they will require ADS-B out and it must be 1090ES because they are not going to support UAT. The same thing will apply in any other airspace that is not US controlled.

    Have you heard of ADS-R? That is where the FAA is going to rebroadcast the traffic information from the other ADS-B aircraft to the ones that can’t receive it. It is ashamed that the FAA and the avionics manufactures haven’t tried to have the FAA also rebroadcast the traffic in the format of Mode S that is available today. If safety was the number one priority this should be done. Garmin has presently sold over 10,0000 GTX 330 transponders that are capable of receiving Modes S traffic information today, and yet the FAA is starting to do away with the Mode S RADAR sites because they forgot to make it a requirement of the ASR-11 RADAR equipment.

    If you think that all the RADAR sites are going away just because of ADS-B than you have been mis-informed, oh that’s right we haven’t been informed at all have we. The FAA learned from 9-11 that we must keep RADAR sites because all you have to do is turn the transponder off and you become invisible to the majority of Air Traffic Control.

    The FAA can help create great technology, they are just terrible at the implementation of the technology.

    ADS-B is a good thing for the FAA and it will provide traffic information for those who can’t afford to install a full TCAS system and will provide free weather information for those who can implement the UAT ADS-B solution.

    The ADS-B solutions that are available today will cost a minimum of $1200.00 to $30,000.00 and that only depends on what you currently have in your aircraft. If you are going to make any upgrades to your panel make smart decisions and talk to avionic shops that understand and can explain the future. If they don’t know than go to another shop.

    As far as the Capstone project goes don’t believe all the hype, and those users in Alaska received a subsidy from the government to install the equipment.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      A very thoughtful response. I think you hit on the key technical failing–the two tier system of UAT vs. 1090ES is going to be the source of major pain. I think it’s a classic example of design by committee, and just what the FAA does poorly.
      Again, I’m not against ADS-B in principle. Not at all. But as it’s currently being implemented, and at the current costs, it’s not fulfilling the promise.

      • Tod Lanham
        Tod Lanham says:

        Thanks for the nice words. I’m not against ADS-B at all. It is great technology, it is just the implementation that is not thought out as well as it could be.

  13. Dave Oberg
    Dave Oberg says:

    I have been flying in Alaska since 1967, and doing it for a living since 1978. As it stands now, I do not see this system working in Alaska. While ADS-B has been in use in southwest and southeast Alaska, virtually all the aircraft using the system have been in commercial use, where the cost of the equipment can be passed on to customers. Very, very few private aircraft are equipped with ADS-B. Many Alaskan pilots are going to resist being required to equip their aircraft for two reasons. The primary reason is cost – it’s going to be hard to justify having 50% of the value of a light airplane tied up in avionics. The second reason is weight – many of us go to great lengths to keep our aircraft as light as possible to maximize performance getting in and out of the off-airport areas we operate from daily. It is going to be very hard convincing all the private pilots in Alaska that they really do need ADS-B in their Super Cub. And Howard, not ALL of us pilots in Alaska are true advocates of the Capstone system.

  14. Rich66
    Rich66 says:

    There is plenty of air to fly in.

    There is a shortage of runways.

    But fixing that won’t make these “high tech” companies rich sellling us stuff we are required by law to buy , that we don’t need and don’t want.
    Now do you see why the gov’t will require this?

    The other problem is the people in power don’t have a clue so they go out and hire geniusses to dream up solutions to problems. Kinda like getting hired to solve a problem you know nothing about then hiring an outside contractor to fix it and sending the bill to the customer.

    This is what politicians do.

  15. David Walker
    David Walker says:

    I fly a Bonanza F33a and have a combination glass and legacy panel. I use ADS-B in & out along with flight stream to populate an iPad. I Fly mainly VFR and use flight following anytime I go on a cross country. It is comforting to me that I have knowledge of traffic and weather even before ATC “warns” me of whats’s out there. This combination allows me the flexibility to fly just about anywhere I have wanted to go. I would not fly without ADS-B now that I’m used to it.

  16. Carolin
    Carolin says:

    When I am reading ths Blog post from a few years ago it seems as if we haven’t come to far in terms of making aviation greener.
    I am still waiting for the big changes which will make flying a non-impact action on the invorenment. Let’s keep our fingers crossed, that we’ll get there within the running decade. The future of flying is at stake!

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