The next year looms as a critical period for the U.S. effort to revamp its air traffic management system. While some of the core programs are on track to achieve major deployment milestones, the FAA will need to show that it has solved policy and technology headaches that could yet stymie progress.

The FAA's NextGen ATM upgrade plan is expected to increase the efficiency and safety of the aviation system as traffic grows. The target date for full implementation is 2025, and two of the crucial foundation systems are scheduled to be largely completed by the end of 2013. Succeeding with these will boost confidence that other NextGen goals can be achieved as planned.

NextGen was launched in 2004, so it is now a relatively mature program. It has gone through a few organizational shakeups, but despite fears to the contrary, the effort has not faded away. While the sequestration debate cast a cloud over all federal funding in the later months of 2012, Congress and successive administrations have so far supported NextGen funding requests.

Securing funding has only been part of the battle—the FAA also has to deliver the technology and procedures that will be required.

There have been both successes and failures for the FAA in this regard. The en-route automation modernization (ERAM) program has suffered multiple delays, and while promising signs have emerged recently, it has threatened to disrupt progress in other areas. Meanwhile, another crucial NextGen foundation—the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) network—is on time and three-quarters deployed.

ADS-B utilizes GPS-derived positions to give controllers and pilots improved surveillance information.

For the FAA, it will initially be used to complement radar coverage in domestic airspace, as well as providing coverage over new areas such as the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of Alaska. The agency has contracted ITT Exelis to deploy and operate the network of ground stations required for nationwide coverage. This will allow ADS-B “Out” service, providing position data for use in air traffic control. The FAA says the improved “accuracy, integrity and reliability” of ADS-B over radar will allow it to reduce separation standards.

ITT was awarded the ADS-B contract in 2007. The company is scheduled to complete deployment by the end of 2013, and is on target to achieve that goal. The company estimates 700 ground stations will be needed—647 in the continental U.S., 41 in Alaska, nine in Hawaii, and one each in Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As of mid-November, ITT Exelis had constructed 516—or 74%—of the required ground stations. A further 73 stations were either under construction or in the final design stage.

Of the 516 stations completed so far, 511 are reporting on the ADS-B network. In addition to the ground stations, 223 interfaces between the ADS-B network and various FAA facilities will be needed. By mid-November 143—or 64%—of these had been installed and tested, with another 45 in final design and site preparation stage.

So it appears that the crucial ADS-B “Out” program is very much on track. However, to make the program a success, operators will have to ensure their aircraft have the necessary avionics equipage. The agency has set a deadline of 2020 for aircraft to have ADS-B capability in many types of airspace.

While ADS-B “Out” will undoubtedly yield significant ATM advantages, many experts consider that the real benefit for system users will come from ADS-B “In.” The “In” aspect would allow the display of other aircraft positions and weather data in the cockpit, improving situational awareness and potentially enabling more direct routings.

Although the FAA has set a deadline for ADS-B Out equipage, it has yet to do so for ADS-B In. An industry rulemaking advisory committee told the agency in September 2011 that it “does not support an equipage mandate” for ADS-B In.

In a report to the FAA, the advisory committee stressed that ADS-B In shows great promise. But “based on the current maturity of ADS–B In applications and uncertainties regarding the achievable benefits, there is not a . . . business case for near-term ADS–B In equipage.”

Instead of setting a mandate, the committee recommended that the FAA should incentivize voluntary equipage, and use demonstration projects to define benefits and standards for ADS-B In.

At this point, the FAA and industry appeared to be on the same page regarding ADS-B In. However, their hands could be forced by Congress. The FAA reauthorization bill passed in February orders the agency to develop an ADS-B In rule, that would, among other things, require equipage by aircraft in capacity-constrained airspace by 2020.

It is not yet clear how the FAA will satisfy this congressional requirement. To help it decide, the agency called for the ADS-B In advisory committee to “give us recommendations on how to proceed with ADS-B In, in light of the reauthorization bill,” an FAA spokesman tells Aviation Week. The FAA “recently received the [committee] report and [is] reviewing it.” The report will be published in the Federal Register after the FAA review, although there is no set timing on when that will occur, says the spokesman.

Meanwhile, important signs of progress are finally emerging on another key FAA effort, the ERAM program. This has been among the agency's most troubled—and most expensive—projects in recent years, and the agency has been frequently lashed by congressional lawmakers and government watchdog agencies for the problems in ERAM.

ERAM is aimed at replacing the backbone operating system used in the FAA's 20 en-route centers. It actually predates the NextGen program, as the contract to build the new system was awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2002. However, it is considered an essential building block for NextGen, since it will be needed for many of the new technologies and procedures being planned.

The new system was originally supposed to be operational at all centers by the end of 2010, at a cost of about $2 billion. It was first deployed to the Salt Lake City and Seattle centers in June and September, 2009, but problems arose during operational trials. These sites were finally declared ready for continuous operations in late 2010, but further deployments did not occur for another year.

In June 2011, the program was re-baselined. The new target for completion is 2014, a slip of almost four years from the original timetable. The cost estimate was increased by $330 million.

The FAA appears to be adhering to its revised plan. Three additional centers—Denver, Minneapolis and Albuquerque—reached initial operating capability (IOC) with ERAM in December 2011, and Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland centers followed in January 2012. IOC allows operational use for limited periods, and all of these centers except Chicago have now achieved continuous operation status, which means ERAM is used full-time.

Houston achieved IOC in April, and the latest wave of IOCs occurred during the fall in Kansas City, Indianapolis, Boston and New York.

So that means that ERAM is operating in some capacity at 13 of the 20 centers, and is in full-time operation at seven. The target is to have all at least at the IOC stage by the end of 2013. While this may appear to be steady progress, questions persist about whether all the technical problems with ERAM have been resolved.

One of the biggest critics of ERAM has been the Transportation Department's Office of the Inspector General. The OIG has for many years chronicled the problems with ERAM, and faulted the FAA's management of the program.

Even now, the OIG does not believe ERAM is out of the woods. At a congressional hearing in September, Inspector General Calvin Scovel said hundreds of software issues have been revealed during operational trials that still need to be addressed. Scovel concedes that while the FAA is making progress in deployment, “it has not fully resolved critical software-related issues.”

Analysis by the IG's office shows that further delays are possible, and that the cost overrun could be closer to $500 million rather than the $330 million estimated by the FAA.

Scovel has reiterated that delays to ERAM will have a ripple effect in other NextGen initiatives, such as ADS-B, data communications and system-wide information management. More than $500 million has been allocated in these programs specifically to integrate them with ERAM, according to the OIG, and they are “dependent on the successful implementation of ERAM to meet their performance parameters.”

However, senior FAA officials are confident that the recent deployments show that ERAM is on track. At the September congressional hearing, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta stressed that the revised estimates remain valid. “I think we have turned the corner with this program,” Huerta told lawmakers.

FAA officials say the remaining issues with ERAM are not as serious as indicated by the numbers cited by the OIG. Only a small percentage of these issues represent new software problems, and many are site-specific, they say. Problems are prioritized, and worked on by a team representing the FAA, Lockheed Martin and the controllers' union.

The importance of 2013 for the ERAM program cannot be overstated. By the end of the year, the program will have either vanquished its past problems and nearly completed deployment, or will be facing a further timetable revision and more questions from Congress. And while ADS-B faces less uncertainty in its last year of deployment, the agency still has to tackle tough questions about the next stage of this program.