“Someone from the private sector needs to raise their hand to make NextGen happen,” says Bruce Holmes. He believes this so fervently that he recently left NASA (where he was Chief Strategist at Langley Research Center as well as director for strategy development at the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) in DC), to take up a job as DayJet’s resident guru/hand-raiser. (Unfortunately, Bruce can’t join us at
NextGen is the long awaited, still amorphous “next generation” of aviation technology that should enable so-called free flight, where aircraft can manage their own flight paths and avoid one another without constant oversight from centralized, human-operated air traffic control stations. It’s controversial, in some quarters at least, because it reduces the need for human controllers – even though they are currently overworked and in short supply. (For example, see this call for caution.)
The benefits include less congestion of air and airports, greater safety, shorter flying times, and of course less need for fuel, resulting in cleaner and cheaper flight.
At DayJet , trying to prove a new business model to a skeptical investor community (the customers seem to be believers), every gallon counts. And every thousand feet flying too low or every minute vectoring around another plane unnecessarily costs lots of gallons. So Bruce Holmes’ longtime passion has real business meaning for DayJet. These same issues have relatively smaller, but still vital consequences for the established airlines, but DayJet, with its shorter routes and its attempt to create a new market, will experience relative benefits several times those of the airlines if the technology and rule changes work out.
“But we’re not raising our hand alone,” says Holmes. DayJet is working with partners including Naverus, ITT and universities and airports throughout
Holmes has been leading this charge for many years, fostering a variety of private-public partnerships from his perch at NASA; now he’s on the other side with more freedom to be aggressive. Still, he cautions, things take time. The current order of business – for the next few months – is to work out a Memorandum of Agreement with the FAA for a demonstration. And that’s just the beginning: The RNPs take time to be generated, and the aircraft need to be outfitted with ADS-B technology and a new generation of digital radios.
“We call it a demo,” says Holmes, but actually it’s an implementation. “You can’t really demo it without just doing it.”
Holmes is working on the assumption that the effects will be significant over time. “There are 130 airports in seven [southeast] states of interest to us; 55 of them have no control towers. In those airports during bad weather, a plane can’t land until the one ahead of it has landed, and the pilot has gotten out and called the ATC from a land line or cell phone. And in others, by contrast, there can be enough of a mix of other general aviation and occasional airline traffic to benefit from NextGen capabilities even at airports that are not the main focus of the JPDO and FAA.” In either situation, NextGen will allow the planes to fly more directly, at higher, more cost-effective altitudes, and to land more quickly. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Well, one issue raised is cost. The costs of these systems are the subject of intense debate in both the general aviation and airline community (with the airline industry estimating $1 million per aircraft and the general aviation industry estimating costs at little more than $10,000 per aircraft). But both the cost and the benefit estimates are probably way off, says Holmes: “Trying to estimate the cost based on the last generation of radios is like trying to figure the price of the third generation iPhone based on the price of the first bag phones - AKA ‘bricks’ - we used in cars in the 1990’s.”
All this has already been demonstrated on a small scale, for what it’s worth, by Alaska Airlines, by general aviation operators in
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