Last week was the 60th annual conference & exposition of the Air Traffic Control Association of the USA (ATCA), in Washington DC.

It’s always an interesting event, bringing together ATM professionals, suppliers and commentators from all over the world to discuss the key issues of the day. I take a special interest too as Director for Europe, Africa and the Middle East on the ATCA Board.

Two issues were of particular interest – how to safely manage the ever growing number of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), something we’ve written about here a number of times; and the NextGen programme to modernise America’s Air Traffic Management system. There was also of course a lot of debate around the privatisation or corporatisation of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) of the FAA, which gets significant political as well as industry attention in the States.

Google Wing

RPAS is an interesting one for all of us in air traffic management, particularly as a lot of household names from outside the aviation industry are expressing a view. Dave Vos of Google (X) spoke at the Conference on how they see this sector of aviation developing and their vision for how RPAS could integrate with other airspace users. Google hopes to have a commercial business up and running in 2017, so this is a very live and real debate and one that Google, along with other global businesses such as Amazon, are taking very seriously.

Vos is Co-Chair of a new FAA Task Force on RPAS Registration, which is recommending how best to register aircraft below 55 pounds in weight.  It has been asked to provide recommendations by 20th November in order to try embed processes to ensure the registration of the 700,000 RPAS expected to be sold in the USA between now and Christmas. The issue of safely integrating RPAS is clearly not unique to the USA and it will be interesting to see what recommendations the FAA’s Taskforce makes on this issue, particularly with EASA’s new regulatory framework for RPAS operations in Europe on its way.

Aside from the RPAS debate, Teri Bristol, the COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organisation provided an update on the ongoing transformation of the US National Airspace System, particularly through their NextGen programme –similar to the SESAR programme in Europe. The foundation level of NextGen is almost complete with much of the necessary infrastructure, such as ADS-B, being deployed and the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) is continuing to work with NextGen to ensure interoperability between the two approaches. This is really important if we’re to ensure wider system operability across the globe and the benefits that will bring to our customers.


Teri made no comment on the privatisation of the ATO but did mention governance and noted that in 30 years’ time there must be some certainty over funding levels, something that seems all too evident after the sequestration issues that caused such problems a couple of years ago. It feels like the time is coming where a decision will have to be made on the future funding model for ATO, though the debate is by no means settled.

However, given the various positive experiences around the world in stabilising the availability of funding for ATM and the very real performance improvements we have also seen, surely the privatisation or corporatisation of the ATO can’t be too far off? Doing so would seem to give the ATO the best chance of having the stability and flexibility it will need to meet whatever operational challenges it, and we as an overarching ATM industry, may face in the future.


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