The Blue Skies Initiative seeks to modernize the National Air Space (NAS) of the U.S., and it could not be more pertinent or well-timed. With both the post-COVID return to travel and an increasingly active and congested atmosphere, the government-industry collaboration, led by the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), is playing an outsized role in modernizing a system for today. But where does it go from here? While the Blue Skies initiative seeks to bring the NAS to the present, what does the future hold for the program?
In a recent article, Peter F. Dumont, President and CEO of ATCA, described a future vision and lessons learned during the pandemic that required the industry to make course corrections.
“The pandemic has impacted every facet of aviation,” Dumont began. “It has disrupted operations and the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands of airport workers and air traffic controllers (ATCs) who put their health on the line to keep the traveling public safe and essential cargo moving.” Since the critical work of an ATC cannot be performed remotely, they have had to face very real risks along with every other essential worker. “We are not yet free from COVID-19, but we cannot wait to start thinking about the future of the NAS and how the role of ATCs will evolve.”
As aviation industry professionals look towards the future, many trends are becoming increasingly clear in both the near and long term. While post-pandemic recovery will drive the immediate need for more innovations, Dumont shared why the NAS must remain a major part of the conversation.
“With the growing diversity of aerospace users and business models, innovative new technologies that require innovative integrations, aging and perhaps cyber-insecure infrastructure, increased focus on sustainability and reducing aviation’s carbon footprint, availability of critical assets, new and chronic NAS performance challenges, and the need for updated certification and acquisition processes to accommodate the rapid pace of technology, the industry must evolve quickly.”
These pressures, Dumont noted, require a robust adoption of new thinking. “The NAS must become truly dynamic, in that it must adapt quickly and be more resilient to threats both natural and man-made.” Dumont sees a model that ensures operational security and safety while welcoming new and innovative uses of the NAS, which he added, is no small task. “But that is why ATCA launched the Blue Skies Initiative, it was born out of an emerging need to address these fundamental questions of how to meet challenges in a new operational environment.”
This new environment of Air Traffic Management (ATM), Dumont believes, must be grounded in a culture of diversity that can adapt as new modes of travel are created. “The expansion of duties will require new training and perhaps a general shift in mindset,” he said. “Many industry professionals have already embraced this change.”
There is a need for growth beyond the industry side, Dumont called for the FAA to adopt its future business models to include a variety of new entrants beyond traditional commercial aviation. “They must start to consider drones, commercial space, and high-altitude operators in the future,” as the NAS grows to include these alternatives alongside more terrestrial aviation.
Finally, Dumont argued that the NAS must utilize new technology to better create a more efficient and sustainable NAS. “Current trends in electrification will require power and charging stations and airport modernization,” he noted. “Modernization can also spur investments that increase connectivity or create a more efficient national and global economy.” While such a plan requires buy-in from everyone along the supply chain, there is ample opportunity to “bake in” these innovations into any new designs which allows the technology to be implemented much more seamlessly. “This allows us to leverage existing technology to a greater extent, maximizing investments, and an even more solid foundation for future improvements.”
Overall, the Blue Skies Initiative is looking not just towards an aviation industry that is ready to move on from the pandemic, but one that is ready to move on to a better future. “With so many changes on the horizon, it is time to plan for a future NAS, evolve our infrastructure, listen to the ideas of the workforce, and embrace innovation, and yes, risk.”
To read Dumont’s full thoughts on the future of the National Air Space, click here.