Ground Clutter

Sept. 29, 2010
ATC Revisited

NextGen is a buzzword of aviation, and ADS-B is an important part of NextGen. Any explanation of ADS-B is full of acronyms. God alone understands them all. I recently read one aviation magazine that described ADS-B as a “thing of beauty” (the author’s words). Another leading magazine implied it is much ado about nothing (Shakespeare’s words) that will cost more and do less than promised — particularly at first.

I’d explain ADS-B myself, but I can’t figure out all those acronyms. In ADS-B speak, for example, “ES” stands for “extended squitter.” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t recognize a squitter, extended or otherwise, if it spit in my face.

ADS-B provides communication between and among aircraft equipment, satellites, and ground stations. Most available info seems to be about aircraft and airborne equipment, rather than ground stations. But it’s with these essential ground stations that a true miracle has occurred. That part of ADS-B is ahead of schedule and under budget. Repeat — a major guvmint program is ahead of schedule and under budget.

Here’s the scenario: The guvmint needs NextGen because it says our current ATC system will be bogged down with growing traffic by 2015, or thereabouts. NextGen requires ADS-B, which requires up and operating ground stations. No aircraft, regardless of airborne equipment, can use NextGen until ground stations are available. Ergo, the guvmint needs those ground stations ASAP.

Back in 2007, ITT became the prime contractor to build, manage, and maintain the necessary ground stations in North America. The contract runs through September 2025 and is worth some $1.86 billion. Segment one of the contract — the completion of some 300 stations — will be complete in late September 2010, on time and under budget.

I was granted a telephone interview with ITT’s man in charge of all this, John Kefaliotis, ITT vice president, Next Generation Transportation Systems. He gives much credit to the FAA, and it seems to me that much of this success story lies within the contract itself.

This is, Kefaliotis explains, a “performance-based procurement contract.” FAA told ITT what it wanted, but not how to do it. That sounds wonderful to me. When the guvmint mandates “how,” it often retards improvement. Codes in wiring, for example, might eliminate everything but copper. That effectively stops the development of better wires from other materials.

Also, FAA isn’t paying ITT for building the infrastructure, but will lease the infrastructure from ITT. Since the lease has ITT managing and maintaining the infrastructure, the company has every incentive to hold down costs and operate efficiently at every point. Compare this with a “cost plus” guvmint contract, which can include disincentives for cost and efficiency at every point.