A number of technology issues are still problematic, but the largest obstacles facing NextGen progress are procedure and policy issues, government and industry leaders agree.

Speaking during the RTCA 2012 Annual Symposium today (June 5), Vicki Cox, FAA assistant administrator for NextGen, says policy issues are “huge” for industry. Government and industry leaders must hash out concepts such as “best capable, best serve” and best means to equip for NextGen to reap its full benefits, Cox says.

Also holding up progress are the development of procedures such as new controller handbooks, she says.

These sentiments were largely shared by symposium attendees: an informal survey revealed that 96% of them believe policy and procedures surpassed technology as the largest barriers to progress.

Best capable, best served, a concept under which operators with cockpits equipped for NextGen would get more immediate controller attention, has its detractors. Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, notes the political difficulties of moving toward a best capable, best served policy, particularly for controllers who must work with the operators. Not all operators will have the financial resources to immediately equip. This is particularly true for the regionals, where there isn’t a single simple equipment solution.

Patrick Ky, executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, notes that at some point the policy may need to consider mandates, such as what was done with Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM). Operators were required to equip for RVSM or were not permitted to fly at certain altitudes.

But Julie Oettinger, assistant administrator in FAA’s Office of Policy, Planning and Environment, notes a philosophical difference between the U.S. and Europe. “Our approach is not to focus on mandates,” Oettinger says, but to move forward with NextGen and enable industry to build a business case for equipping.

FAA has looked on both the financial and operational sides, with a focus on loan guarantees that come thanks to authority provided to FAA in the recent reauthorization bill.

Industry groups also agree that the future system must be designed to accommodate a variety of operators, since aircraft likely will contain a mix of equipment. “We are going to be operating in a mixed-use environment for a very long time,” says National Business Aviation Association President and CEO Ed Bolen. The system must provide benefits to operators who are willing to take advantage of the equipment available, but cannot tell others to “sit on the sidelines,” he says.

The key to best capable, best served is transparency, Ky says, adding that everything must be “completely explainable. We want to get rid of that first come, first served principle.”

Industry must also stress the benefits that are universal from NextGen, from capacity improvements and efficiency and fuel savings to environmental benefits, Bolen says.

The NextGen debate must include all industry leaders, says FAA’s Cox. “The better everyone understands, the more ready FAA will be able to make that hard policy decision,” she says.

For the operators though, building a business case is extremely complex. Michael Dyment, managing director and CEO of NEXA Capital Partners, notes that it may take five-six years to retrofit a fleet for NextGen capabilities, but benefits may be fully realized until later in the decade. “It makes the business case a bit of a nightmare,” he says.

Airlines have a pretty good grasp of what benefits they can squeeze out of NextGen, Dyment says. “They can control the rate of equipage.” They can’t control what other airlines are doing and what FAA would be able to deliver, he says.

FAA acting Administrator Michael Huerta agrees that “NextGen’s success will be a function of how effectively government and industry and all the stakeholders in aviation can relate with one another.”

Dave Barger, president and CEO of JetBlue Airways, who is chairman of the NextGen Advisory Committee, agrees, saying the issue becomes how committed government and industry are “even if most of us are not the immediate beneficiary of being first. We all are in this together. Today’s NextGen is not the endgame.”