““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Why ‘NextGen’ matters
The congressional logjam blocking long-term FAA funding in the U.S. appears to be broken. Perhaps the FAA can finally move ahead with the much-heralded “next generation” air-traffic-control program known as NextGen.
This news makes me recall the mid-1990s, when a visionary FAA staffer named Bruce Holmes–this was back when “visionary” and “FAA” fit in the same sentence–proposed the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS). It was meant to exponentially expand general aviation’s role within the U.S., opening up new options for pilots and passengers alike.
Aircraft and avionics manufacturers were charged with developing then-revolutionary integrated guidance systems. Pilots would have precise GPS guidance and full access to weather, traffic and terrain-clearance information on large video displays. Digital autopilots would fly with pinpoint accuracy. All this and more has been achieved.
In fact, business jet crews already had this level of technology when SATS was proposed. So what would SATS mean for business aviation? That’s where a second element of the plan was to come into play. The original idea called for the FAA to use new technology to redesign the concept of air traffic control, moving away from ground-based radar and navigation beacons and toward solid-state satellite control. In fact, much more of the “control” would be in the cockpit, with pilots having an accurate presentation of the traffic situation on their avionics screens. Ground-based controllers would direct flow, but would no longer be responsible for traffic separation at close quarters.
There was talk of a traffic “bubble” around every airplane in the sky–when an aircraft closed in on another’s bubble, the controller could intervene. Otherwise, pilots would be unencumbered by routings that funnel all aircraft through the same bottlenecks and would be free to fly like birds, rather than like rats in a maze. The potential fuel savings of such a system were huge, and that economic edge placed the airlines fully on board, too.
The other benefit was in airport final-approach technology based on precise satellite navigation. We now have “Localizer Performance” (LP) approach procedures; and more precise “Localizer Performance Vertical” (LPV) procedures, which include detailed descent guidance. With SATS, even small airports can allow aircraft to take off and land in all but the worst weather, without the need for costly and cumbersome ground-based instrument landing systems (ILS).
This is where the true breakout is still expected. If more general aviation aircraft–from heavy business jets to small “air taxis”–can access more airports under more weather conditions, that should enable much greater use of general aviation. Maybe then, the concept of “air taxis”–small jets bypassing large airports by using small airports to pick up passengers and take them to other small airports–can finally gain traction.
So, why has this taken so long? Certainly, the lack of a stable FAA budget slowed NextGen implementation. We currently have close to 3,000 LP and LPV approaches in the U.S. That’s more than twice the number of much “higher maintenance” ILS approaches, and new LP and LPV procedures are planned at an increasing pace. The improvements in infrastructure are or will soon be in place. Perhaps now we’re finally on the verge of realizing the dream of Bruce Holmes and his Small Aircraft Transportation System architects.
Sometimes, “smaller” leads to bigger and better.