Daily Memo: COVID-19 Slows The Progress Of FAA’s NextGen Program

FAA NextGen display
FAA NextGen display at Air Traffic Control Association conference.
Credit: Bill Carey

COVID-19 has slowed the FAA’s 17-year march toward airspace modernization. 

During an on-line meeting of the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) on August 6, FAA leaders affirmed what came as no surprise—the precautions taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will delay programs underpinning the NextGen air traffic control (ATC) modernization effort dating to 2003. 

Even against the backdrop of dramatically reduced aircraft movements, the FAA has been challenged just to maintain daily ATC operations since the first coronavirus infections appeared in the tower at Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) on March 17. Leaders of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization and controllers’ union have said the FAA developed its own protocol for responding to the pandemic after initially receiving little support from public health authorities.

Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time called for people who had traveled internationally to stay at home for 14 days upon returning—closing a major airport tower for that amount of time would have been disruptive. “There really was no playbook on what to do,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The initial plan “was actually to shut Midway down for 14 days.” The FAA eventually reopened the tower in seven days.

As infections spread, the FAA activated contingency plans to shift air traffic services to adjacent ATC facilities while affected towers, terminal radar approach-control and enroute centers were cleaned. Some facilities were reduced to “ATC Zero” status, for a time providing no service within their assigned airspace. Controllers directed pilots from airline ramp towers and parking garages, wore face masks and segregated into crews that stay together during the duty week to prevent randomly spreading the virus.

Still, the coronavirus has proliferated across the national airspace system. An FAA-updated website that lists ATC “facilities affected” by confirmed COVID-19 cases or suspected exposure to the disease counted 35 facilities in early April, 50 in June, more than 80 in July and 127 as of Aug. 7.

“We have taken actions to increase social distancing to make sure that we [can] keep the air traffic operations running,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told the NAC, an airline-dominated advisory committee of aviation operations and technical executives. 

“Travel is extremely limited and non-existent in many cases,” Dickson advised. “Access to our Tech Center [is limited] and we’ve also had a maintenance moratorium. We have stopped some of the system upgrades that would normally be taking place, to make sure that our controllers and our technicians are able to keep themselves and their families healthy.”

The long-term objectives of the NextGen program portfolio are of secondary concern.

“Unfortunately, this latest resurgence in positive test results has upended most of our assumptions as to when we might be able to complete the tasks. A lot of it does require face-to-face interaction with our FAA and industry experts in the field,” said FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell. “I assure you that we have used every bit of our operational engineering and program expertise to innovate and adapt our way in an effort to prevent and mitigate delays. Unfortunately, a growing number of our FAA and industry programs are now showing delays, some into 2022.”

The Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM) program to improve the efficiency of surface operations by integrating electronic flight data in airport towers has been delayed. “The TFDM program has been greatly impacted by the inability to travel and access the facilities, which includes the Tech Center and the [ATC] academy,” said work group leader Rob Goldman, of Delta Air Lines. “TFDM Build 1 IOC (initial operational capability) in Phoenix is postponed until 2021 and the other milestones contingent upon that are all TBD [to be determined].”

The FAA’s largely successful Data Communications program to roll out text messaging between controllers and pilots—which was running ahead of schedule after equipping 62 airport towers—now is paused after deployment to three of the 20 planned regional enroute centers (Indianapolis, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.). The reason: the FAA has suspended on-site controller training.

Also delayed are projects planned under the NAC-initiated Northeast Corridor initiative to improve air traffic flows and reduce flight delays in the region between Boston and Washington, the nation’s most congested for air travel. 

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and other impacts, we will see significant delays in the implementation milestones in 2020,” said Ralph Tamburro, representing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “Most notably, the [redesign of] Atlantic Coast routes will be delayed for over a year. This project was set to make largescale changes to the high-altitude route structure along the eastern U.S., from the southeast to New England, connecting the routes already implemented in Florida,” he explained.

Progress toward the NextGen modernization vision has not completely stopped. FAA executives said activities such as software development by vendors and virtual planning meetings are ongoing. Halted, however, are implementation steps that require people to be on site to both train on and operate new systems.

Because of the pandemic, the FAA has revised the schedule milestones contained in its annually updated NextGen Implementation Plan (NGIP), Elwell said.

“What we discovered is that some of our joint [schedule] milestones are reliant on things like access to the FAA field facilities and experts, which will result in delays that we just can’t determine now,” Elwell said. “What you will see in the 2020 NGIP update are a list of successes, a list of milestone-changes and in some cases TBDs until we can determine an effective [completion] date. We decided to publish the update with the best information that we have.”

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.