ZJX controller discusses future of NextGen on Aviation webinar
Friday, May 18, 2012

Outdated weather information can disrupt all levels of air traffic, and the NextGen program’s goal is to help the people who run America’s airspace to get on the same page. Jacksonville Center controller and NATCA NextGen weather representative Matthew Tucker spoke as part of an Aviation Week webinar on how the program will help mitigate weather delays in the future.

Tucker said he frequently encounters situations in which pilots and air traffic controllers are looking at different weather information, with one or both looking at a radar that could be 15 minutes late or more. As NextGen is being implemented, he said he hopes pilots and controllers can both be on the same page, allowing controllers to plan ahead for incoming weather.

Tucker noted that currently, weather information can differ across airlines. Individual controllers also look at various sources which too could lead to conflicting information. NextGen, Tucker hopes, will help increase the amount of air traffic in the sky, while making it safer.

“Controllers have always wanted better weather information,” Tucker said. “As we move towards NextGen, we will be able to make the same decisions based on the same information and that will lead to an increase in capacity and safety. Once we get the program out there, it will dramatically improve things.”

He said NextGen will allow controllers to plan ahead for possible deviations, knowing that the information they’re working off of is consistent and accurate.

“If we have the confidence in the forecast and, at a certain time, start moving planes over, that will dramatically reduce delays,” Tucker said. “To know a specific time when weather is coming in, and making sure that we have everyone locked and loaded, that will be a major boost.”

Tucker said that FAA managers now run the risk of basing staff levels and shifts on outdated or inaccurate weather information. This can lead to dangerous situations where controllers are caught off-guard by situations beyond their purview.

“We may base staffing, allowing military space to operate, or other things ahead of time,” he said. “If the information is wrong, it causes people to scramble and that leads to delays.”

That said, Tucker reiterated the final outcome on any weather-related decision ultimately rests with the pilot in command.

Joining Tucker on the webinar were Mark Andrews of Metron Aviation, Marc Henegar, the air traffic services group chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Kevin Johnston, the FAA systems operations’ chief meteorologist, and Charlie Keegan, the vice president of transportation training and integration solutions for Raytheon.

Henegar said that a passenger on his plane may have access to better weather information than the pilot, and that shouldn’t be the case. He urged the panel to continue to stay vigilant in promoting NextGen integration.

“Right now, if I’m on a plane and want instant weather information, I have to go back to Row 6 and find the guy with the iPad and wi-fi,” he said. “What it comes down to is, we all have to step up our game.”