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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.



Aviation plays an important role in supporting the preeminent economic, political, and military positions of the United States. U.S. air carriers move more passengers and cargo than those of any other country. U.S. industry is also a leader in manufacturing aircraft and air traffic management (ATM) systems. Globally, the United States has more general aviation and business aircraft than the rest of the world combined (GAMA, 2000, and Lubitz, 1997). In addition, far more commercial air transportation operations occur within the United States than within any other country. The size and efficiency of the U.S. air transportation system help the United States compete in the global economy by providing a transportation infrastructure that often responds quickly to changes in market demand and the various needs of the public, industry, and government at all levels (national, state, and local). An efficient air transportation system enables the rest of the economy to benefit from the efficiencies of just-in-time manufacturing. Seamless links between U.S. and global air transportation systems enable U.S. manufacturers to operate efficiently even with global supply chains, and it allows foreign manufacturers to include U.S. suppliers in their supply chains. Air cargo also helps e-commerce live up to its potential by delivering goods quickly. However, U.S. manufacturers’ share of the global market for civil aeronautics is shrinking in the face of foreign competition. Aviation is a technology-intensive field, and maintaining global leadership will be impossible without continued investments in research and technology (R&T) by government and industry.

The air transportation system includes passenger and cargo airlines; general aviation, including business aviation; and the national airspace system, including airports, ATM facilities, and operational elements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). U.S. civil aviation includes all of the above, plus manufacturers and research organizations in government, industry, and academia. Civil aviation benefits the United States in terms of the economy, public well-being, and national security, including homeland security. An affordable air transportation system makes the short travel times of aviation readily available to business and leisure travelers, improving the quality of life for all who choose to travel by air or who benefit from quick delivery of air freight. However, for the purpose of this report, the primary mission of the air transportation system, which is to provide efficient air transportation, is considered to be distinct from the national security and homeland security missions of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), respectively.

Growth in air travel comes at a cost in terms of noise for residents of communities around airports and in terms of aircraft emissions locally, regionally, and globally. Aeronautics R&T has reduced the noise and emissions produced by individual aircraft and has significantly reduced the total environmental impacts compared to what they would have been without new aircraft that are quieter, more efficient, and create fewer emissions than earlier generations. Advanced technologies have also substantially improved safety, so that even with substantial increases in air travel, accidents involving large civil transports tend to be increasingly infrequent. Even so, additional research is needed to discern, monitor, and eliminate or reduce the underlying causes and other factors that contribute to aircraft accidents. In addition, research can continue to reduce the environmental impact of individual aircraft, it can offset the environmental impact of increases in domestic and global air travel, and it may even reduce the local, regional, or global impact of air transportation, despite continued growth in air travel. Although the performance of large civil transports is of primary interest to the overall operation of the air transportation system, research can also address issues with other classes of aircraft. For example, the accident rate of general aviation aircraft is much higher than the accident rate of large

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.

civil transports, and the high noise levels of rotorcraft inhibit their ability to increase the capacity of the air transportation system.

In decades past, advances in military aviation were the source of many advances in civil aviation, most notably the swept-wing jet transport. More recently, military aviation R&T development funds have been reduced, and the rate at which new military aircraft are developed has greatly declined. In some cases, advances in civil aviation are being transferred to military applications, and dominance of the skies will be greatly affected by the results of civil aeronautics research. A more capable air transportation system could also enhance homeland security. For example, a next-generation air transportation system that uses a network-based approach to communications and the exchange of information would allow surveillance data collected from various air traffic sensors to provide the same comprehensive operational picture to all systems users and monitors, including the DHS and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The air transportation system of the future should also accommodate routine operations of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which are taking an ever larger role in military aviation and will likewise be important to homeland security.

U.S. civil aviation is too important to allow the future to be defined solely by short-term market forces, which are unlikely to produce an efficient system that responds appropriately to user needs. Individual elements of the U.S. air transportation system are owned and operated by competitive companies, government agencies, and private citizens, each with their own motivations, resources, and limitations. Today and in the future, the U.S. air transportation system will not be able to meet the expectations of government, industry, and the public unless ATM equipment and procedures—which generally are owned, controlled, and operated by the federal government—are designed, implemented, and operated as efficiently as possible. In addition, market forces do not provide individual companies with a positive return on investments for research in many areas that are important to public well-being, such as safety, noise, emissions, speed, and basic research. Companies cannot make a business case for supporting an appropriate level of research in these areas, especially when the risk is high and/or a long research program is required to develop commercial applications. NASA, the FAA, and other government agencies must support key noncompetitive and precompetitive research to ensure that the U.S. air transportation system continues to benefit the United States. This is consistent with traditional practices of the FAA and NASA and the legislative charters for these agencies.


The U.S. air transportation system can be viewed from four perspectives:

  • Operational. How does the system function in terms of different phases of operation (takeoff, en route, approach, and landing) and different geographical areas of operation?

  • Aircraft and ground systems. What are the effects on the overall system of changes in the design and performance of individual aircraft and ground facilities, as well as the systems and subsystems that are incorporated within and among various aircraft and facilities?

  • Organizational. How do manufacturers, airlines, pilots, controllers, customers, regulators, and other stakeholders (some with common interests and some with conflicting interests) function together to operate the air transportation system of today and to develop the air transportation system of the future? Also, how well does the current and future air transportation system meet the needs of stakeholders, individually and collectively?

  • International. How does the U.S. air transportation system interact with a global economy, international aviation authorities, and international corporations that are interactive, interdependent, and integrated?

Efforts to improve the existing air transportation system—and to develop the next-generation air transportation system—should take a holistic approach that integrates all of the above perspectives and recognizes that the U.S. air transportation system is a complex interactive system that is more than the sum of its parts.1


For the last 50 years, the National Research Council (NRC) has conducted decadal surveys in astronomy, prioritizing research projects to be undertaken in the next 10 years.2 When the latest astronomy survey was released in 2001 (NRC, 2001), all of the large and many of the moderate-sized programs recommended in the preceding report (NRC, 1991) had been enacted. More recently, NASA commissioned additional decadal surveys in the fields of solar and space physics (NRC, 2003a), planetary science (NRC, 2003c), and Earth science (NRC, 2005). The recently


As used in this report, complex interactive systems (or a system of systems) refer to adaptive systems consisting of a large, widespread collection or network of independent systems functioning together to achieve a common purpose. Complex interactive systems are distinguished from large, monolithic systems by the independent functioning of their components, which provides freedom for existing components to evolve and new components to emerge independent of a central configuration control authority. Complex interactive systems also tend to be distributed over a large geographic extent and require effective communications and coordination protocols for the various components to interact efficiently (Maier, 2006).


The research strategies outlined in these reports are decadal surveys in the sense that they are based on thoughtful examinations of research requirements over the subsequent 10 years.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.

launched and highly publicized mission to Pluto was consistent with the recommendations contained in the 2003 planetary science decadal survey.

The idea of conducting a decadal survey of aeronautics originated in discussions among the NRC’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, the Office of Management and Budget, and congressional committees with an interest in civil aviation. Recognizing the potential value of such a study, NASA subsequently contracted with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board to carry out the study. Although the study focuses on civil aviation, it recognizes and calls out specific synergies that exist with national defense, homeland security, and the space program.


As detailed in Appendix G, the purpose of the Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics was to develop a decadal strategy for federal aeronautics research. The NRC was charged by NASA with providing guidelines for investment in aeronautics R&T, with a particular emphasis on NASA’s research portfolio in each of five R&T Areas:

  • Area A: Aerodynamics and aeroacoustics.

  • Area B: Propulsion and power.

  • Area C: Materials and structures.

  • Area D: Dynamics, navigation, and control, and avionics.

  • Area E: Intelligent and autonomous systems, operations and decision making, human integrated systems, and networking and communications.

The NRC appointed five panels, each with the expertise necessary to examine one of these Areas, along with a steering committee to oversee the work of the panels and prepare this report based on inputs from the panels as well as information gathered directly by the steering committee. The membership of the steering committee included the five panel chairs and one other member of each panel (see Appendix H).

This report describes research necessary to further the state of the art in the five R&T Areas (see Chapter 3). Advances in these Areas would have a significant long-term impact on national aeronautics, and research in these Areas is consistent with NASA’s legislative charter, as described in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, as amended. Accordingly, federal funds, facilities, and staff should be made available to advance each Area.

This report also includes guidance on how federal resources allocated for aeronautics research should be distributed between in-house and external organizations, how aeronautics research can take advantage of advances in cross-cutting technology funded by federal agencies and private industry, and how far along the development and technology readiness path federal agencies should advance key aeronautics technologies, and it provides a set of overall findings and recommendations to provide a cumulative, integrated view of civil aeronautics research challenges and priorities (see Chapter 5). Lessons learned from other federal agencies appear in Appendix F. In accordance with the statement of task, this report does not include specific budget recommendations.


The existence of an explicit national aeronautics policy on R&D would have greatly facilitated the formulation of an aeronautics research strategy, because it would have defined the strategic objectives that should be used to shape future aeronautics research. In the absence of a stated national aeronautics policy, the steering committee identified and defined six Strategic Objectives that should motivate and guide the next decade of civil aeronautics research in the United States:3

  • Capacity.

  • Safety and reliability.

  • Efficiency and performance.

  • Energy and the environment.

  • Synergies with national and homeland security.

  • Support to space.

Capacity is the maximum amount of people and goods that can be moved through the air transportation system per unit time regardless of environmental conditions. The air transportation system of the future will need to double capacity over the next 10 to 35 years (NRC, 2003b).4

Safety and reliability refer to the ability of the air transportation system to meet expectations with regard to reductions in fatalities, injuries, loss of goods, and equipment damage or malfunction. The risk of accidents must be continually reduced so that the number of accidents will remain steady or decrease even as the number of flight operations increases substantially.

Efficiency and performance refer to achieving maximum utilization of the air transportation system so that available resources (aircraft, facilities, fuel, etc.) can provide as much service as possible (moving aircraft, passengers, and cargo). This requires an air transportation system with enhanced capabilities that improve mobility, access, and flexibility and reduce travel time and costs. The goal is to increase substantially air transportation system capacity per unit resource.


Strategic Objectives and other key terminology used in this report are described in Box 1-1 and illustrated in Figure 1-1.


This range of outcomes is equivalent to annual growth rates of 2.0 to 7.2 percent. An annual growth rate of 7.2 percent would double demand in 10 years, triple demand in 15 years, quadruple demand in 20 years, and increase demand sixfold in 25 years.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.

BOX 1-1


This report uses the following terminology to create the framework for a decadal plan for civil aeronautics:

  • R&T Area. Five Areas were identified that encompassed the R&T of greatest relevance to the air transportation system (see Chapter 2).

  • R&T Challenge. For each Area, a set of key Challenges was identified and prioritized (see Chapter 3).

  • Strategic Objective. The Strategic Objectives described in the first section of this chapter were used as the primary criteria for assessing the national importance of each R&T Challenge.

  • Why NASA? Four criteria (supporting infrastructure, mission alignment, lack of alternative sponsorship, and appropriate level of risk) were used to determine how appropriate it is for NASA to address each R&T Challenge. The scores assigned to these four criteria were averaged to create a single “Why NASA?” score for each Challenge.

  • R&T Thrust. Thrusts describe threads of commonality among R&T Challenges within each Area (see Chapter 3).

  • Common Theme. Common Themes are used to group cross-cutting Challenges from more than one R&T Area (see Chapter 4). These Themes do not encompass all the high-priority Challenges, because some high-priority Challenges did not have closely linked challenges in other Areas.

  • Milestone. Milestones for each Challenge are included in the detailed descriptions that appear in Appendixes A through E. These milestones are intended to indicate levels of achievement that demonstrate important advances in capability rather than detailed programmatic progress.

FIGURE 1-1 Terminology breakdown tree.

Energy and the environment refer to minimizing the negative impact of air transportation on Earth, its atmosphere, and its natural resources. This objective also includes the search for alternative fuels should petroleum-derived fuels become a constraint on air transportation. The goal is to reduce noise, emissions, and hazardous waste products (such as coolants and retired aircraft components), as well as fuel use per passenger seat mile and cargo ton mile.

Synergy with national and homeland security refers to the added value of specific aeronautical research when it helps to achieve the first four goals while also helping to achieve the goals of the DoD and the DHS. Because the steering

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.

committee had to define priorities for aeronautics R&T at NASA, this report focuses on civil rather than national or homeland security aeronautics research. This objective acknowledges that a great deal of civil aeronautics research also has national and homeland security applications. The goal is to transfer research results to DoD and DHS, as appropriate.

Support to space refers to the added value of specific aeronautical research if it helps to achieve the first four Strategic Objectives while also helping to achieve the goals of NASA’s space program, including access to space, space exploration, reentry, and aeronautics as they relate to the performance of vehicles in non-Earth atmospheres. Results of research on relevant topics, such as hypersonics and operations in extreme (or alien) environments, would be transferred to NASA’s space program.

The future of the air transportation system should be guided by quantifiable goals (NRC, 2003b). The federal government, however, does not have quantifiable goals related to the Strategic Objectives. Quantifiable goals are included in the strategic research agenda that is guiding aeronautics research in Europe. For example, European research goals for 2020 include the following (ACARE, 2004):

  • Reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 50 percent.

  • Reduce perceived external noise by 50 percent.

  • Reduce oxides of nitrogen (NOx) by 80 percent.

Goals unsupported by funded and approved R&T programs, however, are little more than aspirations, and U.S. efforts to define quantifiable goals for the future should be coordinated with R&T planning efforts to reach the desired end state, consisting of credible goals and a properly directed R&T program.


Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE). 2004. Strategic Research Agenda 2. Vol 1. Available online at <>.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). 2004. General Aviation Statistical Databook. Available online at <>.

Lubitz, K. 1997. Study of Aircraft Accidents in Canada from 1987 to 1996. Aurora, Ontario: Ultralight Pilots Association of Canada. Available online at <>.

Maier, M. 2006. Architecting Principles for Systems-of-Systems. White Paper. The Information Architects Cooperative (TiAC). Available online at <>.

National Research Council (NRC). 1991. The Decade of Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at <>.

NRC. 2001. Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at <>.

NRC. 2003a. New Frontiers in the Solar System. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available online at <>.

NRC. 2003b. Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available online at <>.

NRC. 2003c. The Sun to the Earth—and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available online at <>.

NRC. 2005. Earth Sciences and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation (Interim Report). Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available online at <>.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2006. Decadal Survey of Civil Aeronautics: Foundation for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11664.
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The U.S. air transportation system is very important for our economic well-being and national security. The nation is also the global leader in civil and military aeronautics, a position that needs to be maintained to help assure a strong future for the domestic and international air transportation system. Strong action is needed, however, to ensure that leadership role continues. To that end, the Congress and NASA requested the NRC to undertake a decadal survey of civil aeronautics research and technology (R&T) priorities that would help NASA fulfill its responsibility to preserve U.S. leadership in aeronautics technology. This report presents a set of strategic objectives for the next decade of R&T. It provides a set of high-priority R&T challenges—-characterized by five common themes—-for both NASA and non-NASA researchers, and an analysis of key barriers that must be overcome to reach the strategic objectives. The report also notes the importance of synergies between civil aeronautics R&T objectives and those of national security.

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