Civil aviation is a $1.6-trillion-per-year industry in the U.S., and most of that money will be grounded unless aircraft are equipped with ADS-B-compliant transponders on January 1, 2020.
Ground infrastructure to support ADS-B detection was installed beginning in 2009 and the first ADS-B-enabled flights were allowed by the FAA in 2011. Wide-ranging solutions have been on the market and ground infrastructure to support them since around 2014.
Five years later, large swathes of the aviation industry have yet to upgrade their aircraft to be ADS-B-compliant, and time is running out. It has become clear that some aircraft simply won’t be upgraded in time – and some believe the partial government shutdown that lasted from December to January exacerbated this problem.
During the 35-day shutdown, the FAA was furloughed except for “essential personnel,” which put a stop to all modernization and certification efforts, with cascading effects that may be felt for months or years to come.
At a Feb. 13 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee, presidents of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and Airlines for America (A4A) testified on the impact of the shutdown. One of the issues they raised was the effect on ADS-B readiness.
"The start and stop on NextGen is considerable," said Nicholas Calio, A4A president and CEO. "Every time the government shuts down, we have to turn off these projects. It has a real impact, and it's cumulative over the years. You can’t make up [the lost time]. You can’t just flip the switch back on."
NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said that because of the shutdown, “there is a possibility that [the FAA] won’t be able to meet their 2020 mandate of ADS-B.”
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, came away worried about ADS-B implementation.
“The entire implementation of NextGen, the entire performance or the accountability of the FAA in terms of their ability to properly meet deadlines and milestones is concerning across the board,” Graves told Avionics International. “I think that even in the FAA [Reauthorization Act of 2018] that we just did, there are already milestones that it looks they are going to be missing.”
That concern is not unanimous, though. While GAMA is worried about the impact of the shutdown, ADS-B isn’t an area where the organization sees it making a difference, according to Vice President of Operations Jens Hennig. GAMA’s ADS-B concern is over getting the GA fleets as equipped as possible.
Matt Nelson, satellite operations manager for Duncan Aviation — an MRO which provides ADS-B installation services — said he doesn’t see any relationship between the shutdown and ADS-B readiness either.
“I think [attributing anything to the shutdown] is irresponsible,” Nelson said. “If you step back and take a look at the FAA’s involvement in ADS-B, there isn’t much…We did 40 [ADS-B installations] in January and didn’t need the FAA for a single one.”
The FAA’s readiness is tricky to gauge. The agency, which declined an interview, sent a statement saying that “The recent lapse in government funding will not impact the FAA’s readiness for the Jan. 1, 2020, ADS-B equipage deadline.”
Hennig said that as far as GAMA can tell, the FAA is ready.
“If you look at what the FAA had to do, most of the work was finished by spring of 2015,” he said. “Ground infrastructure was operational. The interface, run by Harris, has been integrated into vast majority of FAA facilities…I checked with program office – ‘Did you guys encounter anything, did this shutdown cause any problems?’ – and they said no.”
He said there might be “unique sites on the margins” or “corner cases” that impact “one-off operators” that still required readiness, but they wouldn’t affect the rule’s implementation.
But there are multiple pieces of the FAA’s NextGen program that use ADS-B surveillance data that are in jeopardy, according to NATCA’s Jim Ullmann, director of safety and technology. They aren’t nationwide, but he calls them “really big-ticket items.”
First is Raytheon’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or STARS, which has been put in place at terminal radar approach control (TRACON) stations throughout the country. STARS development began nearly 20 years ago and is in place at almost every civil and military airfield in the U.S., but it is still absent from North Carolina’s Wilmington International Airport and West Virginia’s Tri-State Airport and North Central West Virginia Airport.
The FAA also has yet to complete its planned installation of FUSION in U.S. territory Puerto Rico’s capital city San Juan and, perhaps most importantly, New York City’s N90 TRACON, which covers LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International Airports. FUSION combines different surveillance information into one more readable source for controllers, potentially allowing reduced separation distance, according to Ullmann.
Thanks to some under-the-gun rescheduling by the FAA, NATCA, companies and individual facilities, everything is on track again, Ullmann said, but any new delays would put that in peril.
“The ADS-B waterfall had about a six-week buffer,” Ullmann said. “So, as [the shutdown] reached 35 days and you’re four or five weeks into a six-week buffer, it absolutely started putting pressure on it….You have anything else happen, any major software items or another government shutdown and I don’t how you could possibly recover.”
If the FAA fails to get, for example, the facilities in West Virginia or North Carolina ready in time, Ullmann said that the mandate could still go into effect, but it’s problematic that facilities that “are part of the overall plan” would not be ready in time. Not least of all because, he said, “the agency has a history over the years of asking people to equip and then people not getting their bang for the buck” with different technologies.
Airlines, Business & GA, Rotorcraft Equipage Differences
That is particularly an issue in the general aviation community, because “the GA community is not sold on this. They’re just not. It’s a big expense for an expensive hobby,” Ullmann said.
That’s part of the reason operators and pilots have waited so long to upgrade.
In total, the most recent FAA data shows that there are about 166,000 registered fixed-wing GA aircraft, excluding gliders and experimental and light-sport aircraft. As of Feb. 1, about 52,000, or 31.4 percent, were ADS-B compliant, with a rate of good installs just under 93 percent. Installs take place at a rate just above 1,000 per month.
As of now, the business jet fleet is about 63-64 percent equipped, with 20 percent of the fleet having equipped in the past year, Hennig of GAMA said.
“I’m feeling good about that one,” he said, because business jet flight requires passage into the airspace covered by the mandate, and the majority of them will continue to fly.
The piston fleet looks less promising at first blush, but Hennig said a breakdown of the data is better.
“The aircraft that have flown more than 5 days or so in ADS-B airspace are on a very good trajectory, while those who have flown fewer are not equipping,” he said.
A lot of piston aircraft are used for local operations that fall below 10,000-feet, where the mandate isn’t in effect, and a significant portion of the fleet is comprised of older aircraft whose owners don’t intend to upgrade them, bringing down the overall numbers.
Nelson from Duncan Aviation echoed that sentiment, saying that there are a lot of older aircraft flying decades past when manufacturers expected, and the value proposition for upgrading them simply isn’t there. He also said that operators flying “on the margins” with those aircraft who would choose not to upgrade but couldn’t afford to replace their planes might be driven out of business by the mandate.
The biggest concern is over the smallest fleet: rotorcraft. Only about 3,100 of the fleet of more than 10,500 helicopters registered to operate in the U.S. have equipped.
“We do have some questions about rotorcraft equipage,” Hennig said. “If you look at ADS-B fleet equipage, rotorcraft are surprisingly low. If you’re flying in any complex airspaces, [air medical service], corporate transports, local police and so forth, you’ve got to be equipped.”
Duncan Aviation still has slots open to perform upgrades in 2019 Nelson said, though they’re beginning to fill up, particularly toward the end of the year. “A lot of people bought slots from us [in the fourth quarter] to make sure that we did have room for them,” he said.
While Duncan still has appointment slots, others are not as open. Elliot Aviation, an MRO organization with three facilities in the Midwestern region of the U.S., is running out of slots. Conrad Tyson, director of aviation sales at Elliot said their three shops are full well into the summer.
“There’s one limiting factor for ADS-B at this point and it’s labor,” Tyson said. “It takes labor to do the upgrades, it takes labor to do the boxes, and it’s out; it’s gone.”
Airlines are in the best shape. While A4A head Nicholas Calio expressed concern over members equipping on time, the organization did not provide any more information. Representatives from Southwest and Delta both said their fleets were in good shape and unaffected by the shutdown.
The FAA’s most current data shows 4,136 equipped commercial airliners across 22 U.S. carriers, with Delta leading the way with 670 equipped in its fleet. It also shows 1,361 equipped aircraft from international carriers.
The fact remains that a large number of aircraft won’t comply with the ADS-B mandate come January 1, 2020. What happens to those aircraft is, at this point, up in the air.
“There is certainly a segment that are gambling their jobs and their livelihoods that the mandate is going to push,” Nelson added. When airplanes are sitting on the ground after Jan. 1, nobody is making money.”