Almost from the beginning, the FAA's NextGen initiative has been dogged by accusations of slow progress. But now there is growing evidence that the grand air traffic management vision is moving off the drawing board and closer to reality.

Significant headway is being made on key operational, technical and financial issues. The cornerstone satellite-based surveillance network is being rolled out, and work is about to begin on a transformative air-ground data communication system. The first benefits are emerging from an airspace redesign effort in large metropolitan areas and—perhaps most importantly—a novel plan for funding aircraft equipage is gathering momentum.

There is undoubtedly still a long way to go, and debate will continue about whether NextGen should move faster. However, this does not negate the fact that the initial pieces are falling into place— with major ramifications for the U.S. aviation industry.

NextGen was launched in 2004, the result of an ambitious call to transform the U.S. air transport system by 2025. Potential threats to the FAA's budget are an ever-present concern, but an even bigger question mark has been how aircraft operators will pay for the equipment needed to operate in the modernized environment. U.S. airlines are strapped for cash and are reluctant to invest in new avionics unless they can see a compelling business case.

The FAA is showing signs that it is prepared to help airlines pay for at least some equipment. As part of its data communications program, it intends to set aside $80 million to help carriers make the necessary upgrades to their aircraft.

On a broader scale, the equipage funding solution with the most potential is public-private partnerships, where government loan guarantees would help unlock private equity at reasonable rates.

One such initiative, called the NextGen Fund, has been proposed by Nexa Capital Partners, with the backing of ITT Exelis. The plan is for participating airlines to pay back equipage costs as the financial benefits of NextGen emerge.

While the outline of this plan was unveiled more than a year ago, there has been little movement since then. The NextGen Fund's managers have been waiting for the government to provide the commitments required for the program to work.

That step may finally be close. The FAA reauthorization bill, passed in February, includes the directives needed to set up public-private partnerships, Nexa Managing Partner Russell Chew tells Aviation Week's NextGen Ahead conference. While the bill's language appears vague, it is specific enough to provide the right parameters for the FAA to establish a detailed program, he says.

FAA Chief Acquisition Officer Pat McNall says the agency has already begun examining how it would administer such a loan-guarantee program, and will soon announce a public consultation process.

Broadly, the agency would consider applications from participants like the NextGen Fund, says McNall. There could be multiple private partners approved, and there would have to be some provision for funding general aviation equipage.

Chew believes the consultation process will begin within the next month or two. The NextGen Fund should be up and running this year, he says.

In the meantime, progress is also being made in rolling out the systems on which NextGen will rely. One of the biggest hurdles has been repeated delays and cost overruns for the FAA's en-route automation modernization (ERAM) system (AW&ST Oct. 17, p. 44). It is still far too early to declare victory on ERAM, but latest developments show it is at least moving in the right direction again.

Although the ERAM program predates the NextGen plan, it is considered a vital foundation. The system was originally supposed to be deployed nationwide at 20 en-route centers by 2010, but this target has since slipped to 2014.

After ERAM was introduced at the two “key” sites in Seattle and Salt Lake City, the deployment stalled owing to a series of system glitches. But during the past five months the FAA has finally begun using ERAM elsewhere, and it is now in operational trial mode in seven more en-route centers, says Chris Metts, who heads the agency's Program Management Organization.

While ERAM is now in continuous operation at the first two sites, it is used only for limited periods at the operational-trial sites. The FAA has a goal of beginning continuous operations at four more of the trial sites by Sept. 30, says Metts. And by year-end, the agency plans to begin operational trials at another three centers.

Metts says some problems still occur as ERAM is deployed to new sites, but this has been the “expected” level of issues that are being worked through during the operational trials.

One of the crucial pillars of NextGen is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which will largely replace radar with satellite-based position data for air traffic control purposes. ITT Exelis has been contracted to provide the ADS-B network, and has deployed more than 60% of the 700-plus radio stations that will be required.

ITT is on track to complete the ADS-B network by the end of 2013, and this year the FAA plans to introduce the ADS-B feed at several ATC facilities. It has already been used operationally at four key sites.

Another core NextGen capability is data communications (data comm), and the FAA is about to ramp up its work on this program. Data comm will move almost all controller-pilot communications from voice to digital text messages. This will make it possible to revise departure clearances quickly for multiple aircraft during weather disruptions. In later phases, the program will allow the complex clearances necessary for advanced flight procedures to be uploaded to the cockpit.

Data comm will be tested with FedEx at Memphis (Tenn.) International Airport, United Airlines at Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport, and Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, says Steve Dash, the agency's deputy director for enterprise services. The first of these trials should be underway by early 2013, involving more than 90 aircraft at Memphis, about 100 at Atlanta and 150 at Newark.

The FAA will select a contractor to provide nationwide data comm services, with an award expected by June. This contract is being sought by three teams representing leading aerospace companies and airlines.

Initial benefits will soon emerge in a NextGen program aimed at delivering near-term operational improvements. The FAA is examining certain metropolitan areas to optimize their airspace design around advanced flight procedures.

The agency has identified 21 metro areas for this initiative, many of which have multiple airports. There are two phases for each location: a study and planning phase, followed by a design and implementation phase. Airlines and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are partners in the program.

Several studies have been conducted by the agency, and so far six have advanced to design and implementation. They cover Washington; North Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Northern California; and Houston. South Florida will be added to this list later this year.

The first results are likely to be seen in the Washington project, says Dennis Roberts, the FAA's director for airspace services. Two new optimized profile descent (OPD) procedures will be introduced at Reagan Washington National Airport in August. The OPDs will take eastbound aircraft from cruise altitude to runway approach, using a continuous speed and rate of descent. This will allow aircraft to remain at idle power levels for nearly 100 mi., says Roberts.

New procedures will also be introduced at the other two major airports in this metropolitan area. The FAA is working with one lead carrier at each airport: US Airways at Washington National, United Airlines at Washington Dulles International Airport and Southwest Airlines at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

US Airways is excited about the potential of the metropolitan initiatives, says Brian Townsend, head of the carrier's flight technical operations. “They allow us to build the airspace around the procedures, instead of building the procedures around the airspace,” he says. The potential savings are large enough that there is “a sense of urgency” among airlines to kick-start the initiatives.

However, Kent Statler, Rockwell Collins' chief operating officer for commercial systems, warns that the FAA should not focus too heavily on immediate operational gains. “Each of these successes is measureable, and a necessary first step,” Statler asserts. “But now that we have [FAA] reauthorization, we must act with urgency to expedite a national airspace-wide rollout, and to fulfill the greater potential of NextGen.”

Airlines have called for near-term benefits using existing equipment in a so-called NowGen approach, Statler notes. But he says the vision of NextGen is not “a small, incremental change—it's a revolutionary rethinking of airspace.” This evolution will need a system that “can't be accomplished through existing equipment alone.”