Significant budget cuts are the latest threat to the FAA's vision for a 21st century air traffic system that already faces formidable challenges. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) needs to integrate a complex web of air traffic management capabilities to serve growing needs in the world's busiest airspace, while enhancing safety, saving fuel and reducing environmental impacts. NextGen is more than technology. It includes policies and procedures, and requires a return on investment.

That's a mammoth mission. And slow progress has raised the question of whether the FAA will deliver on its commitments and, in turn, how much funding will be forthcoming. NextGen is at a tipping point.

While automatic U.S. budget cuts, known as “sequestration,” are a tough reality, the FAA's situation is not unique. All organizations face resource constraints, requiring choices among projects and initiatives. Much work lies ahead, but consensus within the RTCA NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) is helping the FAA with its planning, and work is proceeding in the field. These developments are giving NextGen a needed boost.

New Performance Based Navigation (PBN) arrival routes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, for example, became operational last March. Alaska Airlines worked with the FAA and Sea-Tac to develop these routes. For Alaska, it was a logical next step after early adoption of satellite-based navigation to improve operational reliability in its namesake state, where weather and terrain pose major challenges. “Greener Skies Over Seattle” proves what NextGen can deliver and is a model for the collaboration needed among all stakeholders. Similar work on PBN arrival and departure routes is underway in Atlanta, Washington, Denver and other locations. Documenting and sharing the lessons learned from these efforts will expedite implementation at future sites.

The NAC's dedicated and very capable volunteer members represent all areas of the industry: airlines, airports, commercial and general aviation, air traffic control, the Defense Department, and environmental and other interests. The FAA also has a seat to clarify requirements. The NAC is a passionate group with a shared vision. In putting aside competitive interests, our efforts have led to consensus recommendations on 29 significant issues to improve NextGen deployment.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, an enthusiastic supporter of the NAC since we formed three years ago, is leading a deeper partnership with the industry. He gave us our biggest task in July when he asked for our help prioritizing investment in NextGen projects. In mid-September, we presented a ranked list of NextGen capabilities. Guiding principles contained several key requirements for NextGen investments, including enhancing safety; delivering measurable benefits; and fully funding high-priority initiatives rather than making across-the-board cuts. The most important criteria for setting priorities were benefits to which dollars could be attached, followed by implementation readiness.

Through this process, more PBN/area navigation approaches and the required airspace redesign were ranked first. Reducing separation standards for multiple runway operations came in second, while data sharing for surface operations was third. Eight other capabilities were ranked in the highest priority “Tier 1” category. Project interdependencies and integration were also considered, and the NAC consensus was to implement the entire set of Tier 1 capabilities.

Now comes the hard part: Implementation is more difficult than planning. Military leaders know, and many business organizations have learned, that a good plan executed well always prevails over a perfect plan executed poorly.

The operators and manufacturers have skin in the game, and the NextGen investments they have made are predicated on commitments by the FAA. Dates matter for business cases. Missed deadlines also reduce confidence and diminish the aviation community's appetite for further investment and partnership.

Better communication from the FAA would also help. When it becomes apparent a deadline will not be met, proactively communicating that information signals an awareness of the delay and its impact.

Now is the time for results. Business as usual is not an option. By delivering more benefits sooner, user confidence will improve. Near-term performance will give the skeptics cause for optimism, leading to new investment for high-priority projects. Leveraging RTCA's public-private partnership, industry is poised to further collaborate with the FAA to implement the Tier 1 capabilities. By working together, we should one day look back and see NextGen on par with the Interstate Highway System as critical national infrastructure.