We endure long pauses between posts because we have discussed what we could speak of, and we have not seen much that is new. And so, a radio check and a ride report.
Hiring airline people (Russ Chew, Hank Krakowski, Randy Bobbitt) to run an ANSP is like hiring hostesses to run a restaurant, or a photo developer to run a drug store; they have an informed view of some parts of it, but they suffer from deeply ingrained misconceptions about the high value, essential activities (kitchen, pharmacy, ATC). Unfortunately, The Public tends to over-estimate the expertise of airline pilots and believes they make excellent FAA executives. The results are predictable and consistent.
Russ broke the old system, left a dysfunctional kludge org-chart as his legacy, and went to JetBlue. Hank left for ambiguous reasons; it might have been the Midnights, or it might have been his signing off on ERAM as a successfully delivered system on 3/29/11. Randy is a short-sell, although in a truly Just Culture he wouldn’t have anything to fear. (update 12/7: Mr. Babbitt DUI’d Sat, flew N2 as crew on Monday, and resigned Tuesday.)
Before they left, Russ, Hank, and Randy all swore to Congress that NextGen/ERAM is the key to the future, and that the current system and the “legacy people” are part of the problem. Hank accepted ERAM as a successful delivery (although FAA later attempted to suspend it, in a for-it-then-against-it fiasco that will end up in court).
All the FAA/airline people, all the credible experts, promised The Public that all future problems – budget, labor, delays, noise, fuel, and possibly halitosis – would be resolved by NextGen.
Fortunes and futures are invested in making all the magic happen. NextGen/ERAM has promised everything to everybody, and now everybody is a stakeholder. Sure we can do that! It works in Alaska! It works in the Gulf! It works at 3am! Lockheed Martin is very happy in a situation where the government is responsible for any cost overruns in the continually creeping scope of NextGen.
The Lawyer and the NextGen Bureaucrat, two non-aviators, aren’t going to reverse the over-selling of NextGen by their jet-jockey predecessors. Airline CEOs correctly say that there is no cost/benefit justification for a NextGen equipage mandate, and they’re unwilling to pour money into the NextGen black hole. Congress is playing budget brinksmanship again. Nobody expects bold progress in a Presidential election year.
Politically, NextGen/ERAM is too big too fail. Operationally and financially they need to pull the plug, because they over-promised and didn’t build in any tolerance for initial design work.
ERAM is the dead elephant in the room, and it’s about to go the way of the Advanced Automation System (AAS) When ERAM (as originally described) fails, the broad promise of NextGen (as originally described) becomes untenable.
We’re decapitated, our budget runs out in a month, and the NextGen-ERAM debacle is looming large. How will the headless bureaucracy handle a doomed program that must succeed? The same way as always; make lemonade by updating the deliverables and timeline. Rebaselining deja vu.
A lot of the NextGen functionality – which is already being used in tactical, one-off applications – will continue to be locally implemented. But the burnt-ground, bottom up, holistic redesign of a completely new integrated system architecture is no longer possible.
Pragmatically, they’re probably going to
reduce rightsize ERAM’s scope. They’ll export some ERAM functions that do work into the Host emulators we’re relying on today, and rename the tweaked emulators NextHost or Nöst maybe. They’ll declare Success With Honor with NextGen-Lite 1.0 Say it together: Safety was never compromised.
As for the rest of the baggage, they’ll reposition all of the dodgy promises as future upgrades (NextGen 2.0, 3.0, NG4.0) scheduled for subsequent administrations while the visionaries scramble away from the wreckage with a boatload of billable hours. The Flight Plan will be revised and end up looking like the JetBlue flight schedule on a snowy day.
That’s not all bad. The new mishmash will be retro-compatible where NextGen/ERAM wasn’t. Pilots can still use Mode C and Mode S transponders, ILSs, and VORs. There may be ADS-B-Out requirements at OEP airports, but investments will only be mandated where that’s operationally justified.
There will be a terrible budgetary aftermath. In order to cost-justify NextGen, they’ve cooked the books on all the future budget plans. The current plans are based on invalid assumptions — they won’t need as many controllers, VOR’s and ILS’s; they won’t need as many terminal facilities or field technicians, etc. There’s a huge disconnect between their downstream budget plans, their political agenda, and their operational commitments, and budgets matter. Hello, More With Less 5.0.
There will be a political scandal, which is not good for the future of a profession that works for politicians and taxpayers. The ERAM debacle will need a fall guy, and it’s going to be ATSAWKI – the air traffic system as we know it.
In retrospect, the downfall of the various NextGen rentiers is that they allowed their piece of the pie to depend on an ERAM project that has been previously proven (AAS) to be beyond the capabilities of our design process. The overall failure is due to our hubris in supporting a revolutionary rather than an evolutionary process.
None of this is intended as “the sky is falling”, but rather as an opportunity to paraphrase this wisdom: “The Profession’s best interest is in protecting The Public’s best interest”.
You couldn’t make this up.