Taming NextGen

Jim Eck, FAA’s assistant administrator for the Next Generation Air Transportation System

Positions: FAA's assistant administrator for the Next Generation Air Transportation System
Notable: Spent the first 18 years of his career as a civilian engineer working for the U.S. Navy on aircraft programs such as the F-14 and the E-2 Hawkeye, with a special focus on command, control and communications. Joined FAA in 1996.
Age: 59
Residence: Vienna, Virginia
Education: Bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Penn State and a master’s in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

In April, Jim Eck became the FAA’s assistant administrator for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which is without a doubt one of the country’s most challenging infrastructure modernization efforts. NextGen is a panoply of programs that over time are intended to revamp the U.S. air traffic system into one based on modern networking technologies and GPS. Eck is responsible for rolling all this out efficiently. His predecessor, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Bolton, was brought in from the outside to inject fresh management rigor over the sprawling initiative. In contrast, Eck is FAA through and through. He joined the agency in 1996 and most recently was vice president for program management in the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization unit.

I spoke with him in his Washington, D.C., office and in a follow-up telephone call.


We’ve come a long way in the last couple years at getting the message out, but it’s pretty much a continual process. We’ve got a Hill Day coming up with both House and Senate. NextGen’s been on a pretty good path from its inception. I think we haven’t advertised quite well enough that NextGen had pretty strong roots in the aviation community for a long time. I’m trying to make sure that the path that we’re on is robust and it stays on target.


When you talk about things like big data and analytics, we’re looking at how can we take advantage of that in the cockpit, in the operations centers at the airlines, and in the FAA itself in a data sharing arrangement where it’s not just controllers getting information and making decisions anymore. It’s controllers, pilots, airline operations, our command center and our traffic-management units all collectively working off the same common data set and the same common operational picture. And then making collective decisions about: “Okay, this route of flight is affected by this weather pattern or this other event in the systems.”

Air crews would like opportunities to be part of that decision-making process, so a lot of research is going into getting more information to them for data visualization. How can you get it to them in a format that they can easily understand, digest and do something about? So there’s a lot of display technology going into that as well.


DataComm is going into 56 towers by the end of the year. We’ve got 39 of them installed already. I believe we’re going to make the end of the year.

[DataComm] is truly a microcosm of the bigger NextGen initiative. It’s a transformational technology in the sense that, prior to Data Comm, the entire system [was] based on a controller talking to pilots, and then independently talking to the airline operating centers, and independently working with the en-route facilities trying to coordinate the departure of a particular aircraft. With DataComm, everybody gets the same information at the same time about when that aircraft is preparing to depart. And then if there is a weather change, that aircraft can immediately get a predeparture re-route, which in voice communications can take several minutes, and therefore slow down the ability of that aircraft to leave, and therefore reduce the opportunity for it to leave if that weather front’s moving too quickly. With data communications that can happen instantly.


There are lots of different mechanisms for turbulence: convective weather, movement of air over mountain ranges, the jet stream itself. So we’re trying to look at data collection mechanisms. Right now, it’s primarily pilots talking to air traffic reporting the situation in a particular piece of sky at a particular time. If you get a preponderance of those kinds of things you could develop a notion of what’s going on in that area, and then controllers can move people in altitude. But what we’re looking for is a mechanism by which you could have a sensor capability on the aircraft itself and [collect data on] winds aloft and other parameters. So there is research going on right now looking at how to aggregate that kind of information and then disseminate it from an automated perspective.


It’s a challenge, but we have a variety of ways in which we gather data to make decisions, and then to gather data to ensure that what we’re working on is actually not only the right stuff, but is being well managed. We have program reviews that happen every other week, multiple hours at a time. Not all programs are reviewed every other week, but the major efforts are reviewed several times a year by all the stakeholders in the process. So, you’ve got our folks from NextGen; folks from finance; the Program Management Organization that hosts the meetings; our safety organizations; and our Technical Operations and Air Traffic Organizations; the operations people who are all at the director level get represented.


We have a strategic partnership with NASA that’s rather important in aviation research and specifically to the UAS traffic management system. We’ll use that to help the UAS community evolve. Remember, we are talking about low altitude operations, so under 400 feet. We’re, talking about the small UAS world in uncontrolled airspace. It’s uncontrolled today because we deemed that it’s okay to do so, given the level of activity in that airspace now. As the community matures and they want to start conducting beyond line-of-sight operations, or extended operations over people and integrate into airspace where manned aircraft are flying, now the [UAS system] cannot operate in a vacuum. It needs to operate in concert with the systems that we use to control commercial airliners and GA traffic flying in and out of our larger airports.


One thing I hadn’t anticipated in college, and they don’t teach you is, how often you spend explaining to people what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Much of those kinds of skills come into play in trying to be a successful engineer, and being a successful program manager, and then ultimately how to be a successful leader. ★

Taming NextGen