which they will be employed cannot be precisely determined in advance.


Operational concepts can be used to describe how the air transportation system might advance, from the reasonable certainty of near-term requirements, technologies, and schedule implementation to a less certain vision of the long-term future.

Today there is no single national vision for the air transportation system 25 to 50 years from now. The visions that do exist, however, have a unifying theme—namely, improving performance in terms of capacity, environmental effects, safety, and security. Chapter 1 describes a larger set of system performance parameters that future visions should embrace. Existing public policy on access to the airspace and equitable use of the facilities in the air transportation system is expected to continue, and air operations are expected to increase overall, growing with the population and the economy. Long-term operational concepts should support a broad vision that encompasses all of these expectations.

Near-term operational concepts should ideally be derived from clearly understood transportation system needs. The pace of their implementation will be limited by the availability of mature technology and a host of nontechnological factors. Long-term operational concepts can serve as a guide for examining technological and nontechnological proposals and societal presumptions. To prepare for the future, a range of operational concepts should be developed, examined, and revised using an iterative process that considers potential changes in technology, society, and the air transportation system itself. This requires the ability to test and examine operational concepts for the future in a comprehensive manner. For example, these operational concepts should consider environmental needs and benefits. In the future it may be desirable to control the cruise altitude or flight path of an aircraft to avoid the formation of contrails that affect climate. In general, improvements in system efficiency can be expected to improve environmental performance by reducing fuel consumption, but trade-offs between emissions and community noise may need to be balanced.

The process of developing operational concepts also provides an opportunity to achieve national consensus among the various agencies and stakeholders at a level of detail that permits more focused agreement and planning. The salutary effect of this unifying activity is that it can stimulate and guide research in both technical and nontechnical areas.

The FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan represents a general consensus on one way to bring known technology, infrastructure development, and system needs together and implement them to increase the capacity of the air transportation system over the next 5 to 10 years. However, the Operational Evolution Plan is not intended as a basis for examination and testing of longer term concepts or as a guide for research that will impact needs over the next 25 to 50 years. In particular the modeling and simulation tools of today are not sufficient to evaluate many long-term concepts and transition issues.

The vision published by RTCA, Inc., discusses how to accommodate growth in demand through 2020 and beyond.1 It states that “operations are increasingly aircraft centric, focusing on performance rather than equipment standards, with use of required navigation performance as a key step in enabling greater efficiency, flexibility, and capability enhancements. Access to real-time information for decision-making supports efficient operation of the air transportation system when capacity limitations such as weather adversely impact the system. Enhanced system supported coordination and decision support capabilities allow the system to migrate beyond human centric operations” (RTCA Free Flight Steering Committee, 2002). The same RTCA document contains an evolutionary concept of operations that proposes changes in the air transportation system in three time periods (through 2005, 2005 to 2010, and beyond 2010). As with any future operational concept, this concept should be tested through simulation and modeling to estimate the technological and nontech-nological needs, benefits, and costs. The concept should then be refined and reevaluated as a basis for guiding research, identifying transitional issues, and determining if it is likely to succeed as a unifying effort in guiding future development of the air transportation system.

Looking out to 2050, it is not too early to begin identifying notional operational concepts, developing evaluation tools, and supporting research that enables the process to go forward. Simulation and modeling capabilities more powerful than today’s will be required to better understand the complexities of the suite of systems that comprise or will contribute to the future air transportation system. An iterative operational planning process is essential for articulating the direction in which the air transportation system is most likely to proceed as performance improves.

Finding 2-1. The Challenge. 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.

Recommendation 2-1. Operational Concepts 2050. The federal government, working with other stakeholders in the air transportation system, should develop a coherent set of


RTCA, Inc., is a not-for-profit corporation that functions as a federal advisory committee in developing consensus-based recommendations on contemporary aviation issues in support of the FAA and other elements of the aviation community.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement