Executive Summary

As recently as the summer of 2001, many travelers were dreading air transportation because of extensive delays associated with undercapacity of the system. That all changed on 9/11, and demand for air transportation has not yet returned to peak levels.1 Most U.S. airlines continue to struggle for survival, and some have filed for bankruptcy. The situation makes it difficult to argue that strong action is urgently needed to avert a crisis of undercapacity in the air transportation system. Yet that remains the case. History shows that crises of confidence, economic downturns, and international conflicts can depress the demand for air transportation, but only over the short term. In every earlier case, the long-term trend of increasing demand has reasserted itself. Assuming that current events have fundamentally and permanently changed the public’s demand for air transportation is not a sound approach to preparing for the long-term future of the air transportation system. Current events have provided an opportunity for U.S. national leadership to create a comprehensive, widely accepted long-term vision and a coherent set of requirements from all federal agencies with a major stake in the air transportation system. The continued absence of a national-level endeavor to address the current situation threatens to place the air transportation system in increasing peril.

To help assure the future of the U.S. commercial air transportation system, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requested that the National Research Council establish the Committee on Aeronautics Research and Technology for Vision 2050. The committee was charged with assessing (1) the visions and goals for U.S. civil aviation, as described in five key documents produced by the federal government,2 and (2) technology goals for the year 2050. The committee issued a letter report on August 14, 2002, to address the first topic.3 Current U.S. visions for civil aviation correctly point out the importance of civil aviation. To sustain our ability to reap the benefits that aviation provides, the U.S. visions consistently identify three main areas that long-term aeronautics research should address:4

  • capacity of the air transportation system (in terms of passenger-miles, cargo-ton-miles, and aircraft operations)

  • environmental compatibility (noise and emissions)

  • safety and security

The committee concluded, however, that U.S. visions and goals consistently overlook several key items:

  • a clear set of guiding principles

  • a description of the overall process for developing and achieving a widely endorsed long-term vision for the air transportation system

1  

This report uses demand generally to refer to both consumer demand (the amount of air transportation services purchased, in terms of passenger-miles and cargo-ton-miles) and the load imposed on the air traffic control system (in terms of aircraft operations). Demand reflects the response of consumers to prices and the shape of the air transportation demand curve. Consumer demand is closely linked to demand on the air traffic control system, as individual airlines adjust routes, schedules, levels of service, prices, etc., to both stimulate and satisfy consumer demand.

2  

The complete statement of task appears in Appendix A, which also lists the visions assessed by the committee. A summary of the committee’s comparative assessment appears in Appendix B.

3  

National Research Council (NRC). 2002. Aeronautics Research and Technology for 2050: Assessing Visions and Goals—Letter Report. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at <www.nap.edu/catalog/10518.html>.

4  

Items in this and other lists are either listed alphabetically or grouped topically. The committee did not prioritize research areas in each list.



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Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril Executive Summary As recently as the summer of 2001, many travelers were dreading air transportation because of extensive delays associated with undercapacity of the system. That all changed on 9/11, and demand for air transportation has not yet returned to peak levels.1 Most U.S. airlines continue to struggle for survival, and some have filed for bankruptcy. The situation makes it difficult to argue that strong action is urgently needed to avert a crisis of undercapacity in the air transportation system. Yet that remains the case. History shows that crises of confidence, economic downturns, and international conflicts can depress the demand for air transportation, but only over the short term. In every earlier case, the long-term trend of increasing demand has reasserted itself. Assuming that current events have fundamentally and permanently changed the public’s demand for air transportation is not a sound approach to preparing for the long-term future of the air transportation system. Current events have provided an opportunity for U.S. national leadership to create a comprehensive, widely accepted long-term vision and a coherent set of requirements from all federal agencies with a major stake in the air transportation system. The continued absence of a national-level endeavor to address the current situation threatens to place the air transportation system in increasing peril. To help assure the future of the U.S. commercial air transportation system, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requested that the National Research Council establish the Committee on Aeronautics Research and Technology for Vision 2050. The committee was charged with assessing (1) the visions and goals for U.S. civil aviation, as described in five key documents produced by the federal government,2 and (2) technology goals for the year 2050. The committee issued a letter report on August 14, 2002, to address the first topic.3 Current U.S. visions for civil aviation correctly point out the importance of civil aviation. To sustain our ability to reap the benefits that aviation provides, the U.S. visions consistently identify three main areas that long-term aeronautics research should address:4 capacity of the air transportation system (in terms of passenger-miles, cargo-ton-miles, and aircraft operations) environmental compatibility (noise and emissions) safety and security The committee concluded, however, that U.S. visions and goals consistently overlook several key items: a clear set of guiding principles a description of the overall process for developing and achieving a widely endorsed long-term vision for the air transportation system 1   This report uses demand generally to refer to both consumer demand (the amount of air transportation services purchased, in terms of passenger-miles and cargo-ton-miles) and the load imposed on the air traffic control system (in terms of aircraft operations). Demand reflects the response of consumers to prices and the shape of the air transportation demand curve. Consumer demand is closely linked to demand on the air traffic control system, as individual airlines adjust routes, schedules, levels of service, prices, etc., to both stimulate and satisfy consumer demand. 2   The complete statement of task appears in Appendix A, which also lists the visions assessed by the committee. A summary of the committee’s comparative assessment appears in Appendix B. 3   National Research Council (NRC). 2002. Aeronautics Research and Technology for 2050: Assessing Visions and Goals—Letter Report. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at <www.nap.edu/catalog/10518.html>. 4   Items in this and other lists are either listed alphabetically or grouped topically. The committee did not prioritize research areas in each list.

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Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril a strategy for overcoming transitional issues consumer satisfaction primacy of the U.S. aeronautics industry Securing the future of the air transportation system requires that change within the system be accelerated quickly enough and directed with enough agility to avoid problems and achieve future goals while managing (1) the influence of increased demand and other external pressures and (2) conflicts between different goals and stakeholders. The process of achieving the long-term vision must be robust enough to prevent the system from changing too slowly, drifting, or going in the wrong direction. The process of improving the long-term performance of the air transportation system—and organizing a corresponding long-term research and technology program—should start with a unified, widely endorsed national vision that specifies goals in each key area of interest to the commercial aviation community. The continued success of aviation and the benefits that it provides will require changes to accommodate increased demand. The committee found this to be the most critical long-term issue facing all aspects of the air transportation system. Issues associated with safety, security, and environmental compatibility are also exacerbated by greater demand, and the effectiveness of currently envisioned near-term solutions in each of these areas would be diminished if demand for air travel in the United States doubles over the next 10 to 35 years, as currently projected. Increasing passenger throughput enough to keep up with increased demand requires eliminating constraints and improving the flexibility of the system enough to overcome localized capacity problems while accommodating the full range of authorized users (commercial, private, and military). For example, eliminating the effects of adverse weather is not enough; in many areas, the baseline capacity of the system (in good weather) must also be greatly increased to accommodate a deregulated airline industry as it strives to meet user demands for convenient service. This requires research leading to improvements in every element of the air transportation system. The future vision of the air transportation system should be supported by research and technology goals leading to improved performance in terms of en route comfort of passengers, the convenience of passenger travel and air freight service (including travel time), the cost of moving passengers and cargo (including the cost of developing and manufacturing new aircraft and aircraft systems), and the societal impact of aviation (in terms of the consumption of nonrenewable fuels, emissions, land use, noise, safety, security, reduced congestion in other modes of transportation, employment, and other effects on the national economy). Measurable long-term targets supported by sound analyses should be established to assess progress toward the goals. Research should support the establishment of quantifiable goals in areas where progress is difficult to measure. The air transportation system is supported by a core of dedicated government and industry personnel who are developing new operational concepts, architectures, and modernization plans. Yet no single organization has the responsibility and authority for developing a comprehensive solution to the challenges faced by the U.S. air transportation system. Business as usual, in the form of continued, evolutionary improvements to existing technologies, aircraft, air traffic control systems, and operational concepts, is unlikely to meet the needs of air transportation over the next 25 to 50 years. The disparity between (1) the rate at which demand is increasing and (2) the rate at which technology is reducing aircraft noise and emissions is becoming increasingly difficult to overcome because technical advances are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. Without strong, focused leadership, the likely result will be an air transportation system where growth in demand has been greatly curtailed by undercapacity; the environmental effects of aviation; customer dissatisfaction with available levels of comfort, convenience, and cost; and/or factors related to safety and security. The committee believes that strong action by a federal agency or office to provide such leadership, with the broad support of the administration and the Congress, would do more to improve the ability of national aeronautical research and development programs to achieve their goals than any other change in the management or content of the programs themselves. The designated office should have (1) the responsibility, authority, and financial resources necessary for defining air transportation system architectures through a centralized planning function, (2) an understanding of the interactions among system performance parameters, demand, and economic factors, such as the methods used to fund federal activities in support of the air transportation system, and (3) the credibility and objectivity to garner the active support of other air transportation stakeholders in government, industry, and the general public. This will require, among other things, a leadership group composed of individuals with a broad aviation perspective and a willingness to accept the risks of looking ahead and allowing others to help define the future.5 PROCESS FOR CHANGE The aviation system is unique in that it has one federal agency (NASA) responsible for long-range research and development and another agency (FAA) that supplies traffic management systems and services and regulates the carriers and manufacturers. The cultures, missions, and operating practices of NASA’s aeronautics enterprise and the FAA are 5   Assessing the organization and role of specific government agencies was beyond the scope of this study (see Appendix A), so no recommendation is made regarding which federal office or agency should be designated to provide the required leadership.

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Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril quite distinct, as would be expected when comparing a research organization with an operational organization. Nonetheless, they are the federal government’s principal agents for operating and improving the technical capabilities of the air transportation system. A national vision, clear technology goals, and strong, focused leadership are necessary to improve the competitiveness of the U.S. aeronautics industry and enable the air transportation system to satisfy increased demands for air travel without degrading system safety, security, environmental compatibility, or consumer satisfaction. Also required is a process for integrating, organizing, and directing aeronautics research and technology development and a clear understanding of organizational roles. Action necessary to achieve the above is encapsulated in the process for change that is defined in the following summary recommendation: Recommendation. Process for Change. Establish air transportation as a national priority with strong, focused leadership. Air transportation system technology planning and development should be done in the context of a process driven by the needs of system users and the nation as a whole. Implement a public/private process for change, as follows: Designate a federal agency or office to provide strong leadership in overcoming the challenges faced by the U.S. air transportation system. Establish an interagency process for developing and achieving a widely endorsed long-term vision of the air transportation system that includes a clear set of guiding principles and a strategy for overcoming transitional issues. Document the process. Coordinate action and resolve disputes among stakeholders in the aviation community with different concerns and priorities (e.g., manufacturers and operators; executives and employees; pilots, controllers, and passengers; local, federal, and state governments; regulators; the military; and general aviation). Gather and analyze feedback on how well the process is working from the perspective of all interested parties, especially when conditions change, to identify problems before serious incidents or disruptions occur and to recognize new opportunities. Formally review the process and process outputs at least every 4 years. Update the process. The output of the process should include the following: A better understanding of future demand for air transportation to make sure that changing trends will be detected as soon as possible. A unified, long-term national vision endorsed and supported by the aeronautics community as a whole and cognizant federal agencies. Broad public policies to support the vision. Long-term operational concepts to meet the vision and to serve as a continuing resource for guiding change and coordinating action by different parties. System architectures to realize the operational concepts. An understanding of how the U.S. air transportation system of the future will fit into the national (intermodal) transportation system and the international air transportation system. Validated research and technology requirements. An implementation plan to achieve all of the above, including a clear understanding of government and industry roles in developing precompetitive and noncompetitive aeronautical research and transitioning the results of civil and military government research to commercial development. A comprehensive suite of system models should be developed, validated, and maintained to support informed decision making throughout the process. Models should encompass the following: demand economics environmental effects existing and new technologies human performance interactions with other modes of transportation new operational concepts organizational factors security threats and preventive measures system engineering transition (from old to new technologies, systems, and organizational structures) A commitment should be made to support a stable long-term research program to provide the knowledge, tools, and technologies needed throughout the process. At a low level, the research program should investigate innovative research ideas that challenge accepted precepts. The following sections describe in more detail specific actions for improving the performance of (1) the air transportation system as a whole, (2) modeling and simulation capabilities necessary to support improvements in the air transportation system, and (3) individual aircraft. IMPROVING THE AIR TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM Developing meaningful and useful operational concepts stemming from a broadly defined vision of the air transportation system 25 to 50 years hence is a critically important task in the process of improving the performance of the system. To meet this challenge, the federal government, working with other stakeholders in the air transportation system, should develop a coherent set of operational concepts supporting a vision of the air transportation system in the 2050

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Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril time frame. These concepts should encompass a range of potential changes in technology, society, and the air transportation system itself. They should be used to guide long-term research and the evolution of and transition to a more advanced air traffic management system. The concepts should be continually, objectively, and rigorously evaluated (for example, through comprehensive simulation and modeling) and iterated to reflect feedback from stakeholders, conflicts between alternative concepts, and the best understanding of the future costs, benefits, and requirements that are likely to evolve in response to changes in the real world, the current state of technology and systems operations, and future expectations. The research and technology requirements should be tailored to meet the requirements of future operational concepts. Enabling technologies applicable to a wide range of operational concepts should be developed in parallel with research to develop and evaluate long-term operational concepts so that the necessary technologies will be ready for whichever operational concept proves to be most beneficial. Technology areas of particular interest include the following: design of human-integrated systems distributed, collaborative decision making autonomous and interactive technologies noise and emissions locally, regionally, and globally wake vortices situational awareness systems-engineering methods avionics Technological research alone is insufficient to achieve the future vision. Research is also needed to (1) better understand the economic, environmental, political, institutional, and managerial factors involved in achieving key goals, (2) take advantage of synergies among these factors, and (3) overcome related impediments. The federal government should support research to develop improved processes and methods in the following nontechnology areas: economics regulations, certification requirements, and operating procedures resolution of conflicting objectives of different stakeholders societal concerns about aircraft noise and emissions MODELING AND SIMULATION Federal, industrial, and academic institutions in the United States have tremendous research capabilities and resources. Achieving the future vision of the air transportation system requires that research be directed at technical capabilities most likely to achieve long-term performance goals. Complementary use of field tests, laboratory tests, modeling, analysis, and simulation would improve the ability to (1) measure systemwide behavior of the air transportation system, (2) assess the performance of proposed operational concepts, technologies, and other changes, and (3) make informed investment decisions to reduce the schedule, cost, and technical risks of system improvements. In addition, the process of securing the future would be greatly facilitated if the federal agencies that support research in aviation system models would improve their coordination, especially with regard to the following: research plans participation of industry and academia criteria for maintenance and validation availability of models use of models by decision makers The government and other interested parties should support additional simulation and modeling research in the following areas: interoperability safety analysis demand and demand allocation validation of models and suites of models formation of a suite of system models role of humans in the aviation system of the future IMPROVING AIRCRAFT PERFORMANCE Improvements in aircraft performance are critical to achieving necessary improvements in almost every aspect of the overall performance of the air transportation system. Innovative long-range research leading to the implementation of new operational concepts is also required for the air transportation system to take full advantage of gains in the performance of commercial aircraft. To improve the performance of aircraft through 2025, federal agencies should continue to support research leading to evolutionary improvements in aircraft performance. Looking out to 2050, however, large gains in aircraft performance are unlikely to be achieved without innovative long-range research leading to new aircraft concepts and technologies. Areas of particular interest include the following: analytical tools composite materials environmental consequences of aircraft noise and emissions low emissions combustor technology nanotechnology nontraditional aircraft configurations

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Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril nontraditional power and propulsion concepts passive and active control of laminar and turbulent flow high-temperature engine materials and advanced turbomachinery Technologies specifically related to personal air vehicles, uninhabited air vehicles, supersonic aircraft, or runway-independent air vehicles have the potential to improve the performance of the air transportation system, especially in niche areas. However, research in these areas will not be able to resolve the overall capacity problems that are the primary challenge to the continued success of the air transportation system over the long term. Accordingly, the committee did not examine technologies related to these vehicle classes and makes no recommendations concerning the future direction of research in these areas. Nonetheless, the process for change recommended by the committee would facilitate the planning of research for all vehicle types.