A Fast-Track Task Force Moves NextGen Forward

April 2010
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Airspace, Aviation Industry
The FAA is moving ahead with its NextGen plan to modernize the National Airspace System thanks to the consensus of a task force little-known outside the aviation industry.
plane flying

Just as the safe flight of an aircraft requires the combined effort of the flight crew and air traffic controllers, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) plan to modernize the National Airspace System requires the combined efforts of the government, airspace users, and the aviation industry. Now, thanks to recommendations from a highly effective volunteer task force, the Federal Aviation Administration is continuing to move ahead with NextGen's development. The long-term benefits of the task force's work will include improved safety in the air and at airports, better use of existing capacity, greater design flexibility, and reduced environmental impacts.

Early in 2009, the FAA requested the RTCA—which serves as a federal advisory committee on aviation—to forge an industry consensus on priorities for NextGen enhancements for implementation through 2018. That request resulted in the formation of the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force. Dubbed TF5 (because it was the fifth task force created in the RTCA's history), the group included more than 350 members representing 116 organizations in U.S. and international aviation. The FAA requested MITRE's participation in TF5 because we have decades of experience in bringing together parties with diverse points of view, combined with extensive knowledge of the aviation field.

Besides MITRE, participating groups included the FAA, general aviation, corporate aircraft operators, commercial flight operators, avionics suppliers, the Department of Defense, aviation industry associations, and other aviation stakeholders. Considering the number of individuals and organizations involved, TF5 completed its task in a surprisingly short seven months—from February through August. The group presented its final report to the FAA in September 2009 and its recommendations were highlighted in Congressional hearings the following month.

"The task force focused on the difficult near-term transition issues that must be resolved as soon as possible to provide a solid foundation for NextGen," said TF5 chairman Stephen Dickson, Delta Air Lines captain, in his final report. "These issues include policies, procedures, operational approval processes, certification, regulatory guidance, training, criteria and standards, along with equipage and technology."

RTCA president Margaret T. Jenny said in her statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: "The Task Force recommendations solve very real and current problems while laying down the necessary ground work for the longer-term NextGen. They are, in effect, the risk mitigation program for NextGen."

In addition to providing solid guidance for NextGen, the way the group operated should serve as an example for other such industry-government collaborations. The members of TF5 focused on a short set of recommendations supported with plenty of details; explicitly involved financial decision-makers from the operator community; and committed to a process that used transparency and data-informed decision-making—with lots of detailed backup material.

Many Hands Make Light Work

The Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), the federally funded research and development center that MITRE runs for the FAA, contributed aviation personnel and expertise. More than two dozen people with experience in operations, aviation technology, financial analysis, and portfolio assessment worked on Task Force activities. CAASD personnel also developed a special tool—the NextGen Dashboard—that helped the Task Force make decisions on a transparent basis by providing the necessary data.

MITRE's Deborah Kirkman, a senior principal information system engineer, and Suzanne Porter, terminal integration lead, both held leadership positions on the task force. Kirkman, along with Fred Messina of Booz Allen Hamilton, co-chaired the evaluation group that defined the methodology for assessing proposals. Porter co-chaired the Elements Subgroup with David Strand of American Airlines. This group defined each aviation capability along with any associated changes in automation, avionics, roles, responsibilities and policies.

"We looked at the operational capabilities and identified all of the elements necessary to achieve each one," says Porter. "An example of a capability is flying parallel approaches to runways spaced closer together than what is currently allowed in low-visibility conditions. Another example is improving civilian access to special activity airspace—where aircraft operations may be limited to activity by DoD, for example—and improving how it's managed collaboratively by the DoD and the FAA."

The task force identified more than 50 candidate capabilities. The group then launched an effort to evaluate and prioritize them, narrowing down to the ones that exhibited the best business case and manageable risk. To do all this, the task force was divided into subgroups that handled different tasks simultaneously. Kirkman's Evaluation Subgroup, for example, had 40 to 50 people. "The groups were big enough that we got a good core of people who were doing significant amounts of work," she says. "We were able to get a broad view of everybody's perspectives. That was part of our success, especially for the evaluation methodology."

The task force conducted more than 150 meetings with hundreds of individuals from every part of the aviation community. For people who couldn't travel to meetings, the group used electronic media for remote participation. "We used Web-based tools to combine real-time desktop sharing with phone conferencing so everyone could see the same thing," Kirkman says. "RTCA also had a website where it posted all pertinent information."

She points out that her subgroup's job "wasn't to generate information or come up with proposals, but to come up with an evaluation method that was fair, transparent, and flexible." That's where the Dashboard tool helped tremendously.

An Essential Dashboard

MITRE built a simpler version of the NextGen Dashboard for a project requiring a similar mode of collaboration a few years ago. This early version looked at benefits and implementation risks associated with proposed NextGen capabilities. "We were asked to build on it because task force members were familiar with it," says Kirkman. "They thought it was a valuable way to proceed rather than invent something totally from scratch."

"The Dashboard proved to be essential for resolving conflicts and helping us reach and maintain consensus," adds Worth Kirkman, the MITRE avionics integration lead who headed the sub-team that developed the Dashboard. (The name isn't a coincidence—he's also Deborah Kirkman's husband.) "It not only informed task force members, but the Dashboard's framework for presenting and summarizing issues allowed members to engage more effectively to address those issues."

The MITRE-designed NextGen Dashboard, a spreadsheet-based tool, consists of a series of hierarchical spreadsheets that allow for data entry as well as visualization of the assessment at different levels of detail. The tool identifies and compares benefits across 56 unique capabilities. The Dashboard helped task force members assess benefits, readiness, and risk across 20-plus factors. (Source: RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report)
The MITRE-designed NextGen Dashboard, a spreadsheet-based tool, consists of a series of hierarchical spreadsheets that allow for data entry as well as visualization of the assessment at different levels of detail. The tool identifies and compares benefits across 56 unique capabilities. The Dashboard helped task force members assess benefits, readiness, and risk across 20-plus factors. (Source: RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report)

"The Dashboard wasn't designed to tell you the answer," explains Deborah Kirkman. "It made information available to people in a way they could easily navigate through and not get overwhelmed. We didn't want to create a tool that told members what the answer should be—that would have undermined our processes. There are a lot of intangibles and things that can't be translated to a number or to a formula.

"An example is comparing something that's beneficial but a bit more risky with something that is simple to do, but has relatively small benefits. Another intangible is making sure that no one region or constituency benefited unduly. We wanted to make sure we didn't undermine the value people bring to decision making."

The Dashboard characterized capabilities by benefits, implementation readiness, and risk and used an intuitive visual interface. "Packaging the information in a way that task force members could work with it while still having access to the sources changed the conversation," she explains. "When someone would advocate, 'X is much more important,' people started saying, 'show me the data.' That same data helped to maintain the consensus even as people recognized that their own favorite solution wasn't in the priorities."

Next Steps for NextGen

Seven months flew by, and the task force submitted its report with recommendations that covered several specific aviation domains. These ranged from improvements to runway traffic management and access to improving the efficiency of in-air operations through better information sharing. Because of the complexity of the National Airspace System, several of the recommendations cut across multiple domain areas.

"The FAA recently issued an update of the NextGen Implementation Plan, which included the FAA's response to all the advice the industry pulled together," says Kirkman. "The RTCA leadership will continue working with the FAA and help it understand the tradeoffs to the industry and how we go forward."

—by David A. Van Cleave

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