federal government has also established a joint aviation system program office, motivated in part by the perception that

  • The demand for air transportation will exceed planned capacity improvements.

  • A strategic realignment of government resources is needed to enhance mobility and improve the benefits provided by aviation research.

  • Government leadership is needed to develop a unified national plan.

The joint program office will be guided by a policy committee chaired by the secretary of transportation and including the FAA and NASA administrators and senior executives from the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security.1

Developing a public-private consensus on a long-term vision and goals will be complicated by the different concerns of different stakeholders. Especially in times of financial difficulty, airlines understandably are highly cost sensitive and have a hard time looking past the immediate future. In addition, the FAA is forced by the nature of its close supervision by Congress, its own technical limitations, and intense pressure from the airlines to be conservative in the introduction of new technologies.

Many so-called scientific and engineering breakthroughs are the result of discoveries made 10 to 20 years earlier. Success often requires persistence, the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, and/or a change in circumstances that significantly alters what is possible and practical. For example, the idea of the gas turbine reportedly is described in a British patent granted in 1791 (Moss, 1944), but use of the gas turbine for aircraft propulsion proved to be an elusive goal. As late as 1924, an investigator for the U.S. Bureau of Standards concluded that “jet propulsion would be impractical for either civilian or military purposes: The top speed of a jet-powered aircraft would be only 250 miles per hour and fuel consumption would be four times higher than piston engines” (Mandeles, 1998). Research continued nonetheless, but the first flight of a gas turbine propulsion system did not take place until 1941, when the imperative of war spurred massive aviation research and technological advances in materials and other fields made this achievement possible. World War II also laid the foundation for a greatly expanded air transportation system by training thousands of pilots, creating a huge inventory of surplus military aircraft and airports, and producing many other advances in the state of the art of aviation technology.

Action necessary for securing the future for the U.S. air transportation system is encapsulated in the process for change that is defined in the following summary recommendation:

Recommendation 5-1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 international air transportation system.

    • Validated research and technology requirements.


John Kern, Federal Aviation Administration, briefing to Alan Angleman, National Research Council, on April 11, 2003.

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