There are serious concerns regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to effectively and efficiently implement NextGen, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said during a hearing on the program that is intended to transform the country's aging air traffic control systems.
“I’ve heard that some ‘transformational’ NextGen programs aren’t truly transformational, that the FAA will never make the tough decisions required to advance NextGen, and that nobody can really agree what NextGen is today or what it should be in 2025,” said LoBiondo, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee.
The Next Generation Air Transportation System came under scrutiny in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday as federal legislators tried to understand why the decade-old program was not producing the promised technology to change the country's aviation systems from radar to satellite by 2025 — and within the $40 billion budget.
The FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township is the primary facility supporting NextGen.
Wednesday’s hearing focused on reports by the federal program's administrator, Michael Huerta, and the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Calvin Scovel III.
Scovel said the program has had a frequent turnover in administration and “lacked realistic strategies for achieving a system that could handle three times more air traffic while reducing FAA’s operating costs.”
He said if the trend continues, NextGen is in danger of not meeting the 2025 deadline.
Huerta attributed the slow progress to the unstable organization of the program, cuts in federal funding, and a thorough level of testing and demonstrations to ensure the systems are safe.
Scovel said that in addition to those problems, the program lacks any direction or plan and is not piquing enough interest from stakeholders.
“To date, FAA’s progress in implementing NextGen has not met the expectations of Congress and industry stakeholders,” Scovel said.
Huerta, who was recently promoted to the position of administrator after the position was left unoccupied for more than a year, said the program is focused on ensuring safety, as well.
But the committee members were interested in the various projects and what stage they were at, as well as why more projects are not further along in the development stages.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said in his discussions with stakeholders and those in the industry that some of the technology is “for practical reasons not being used. It sounds like there’s a lot of technology out there, but it’s not being implemented.”
The three projects discussed at the hearing included performance-based navigation (PBN), data communications (DataComm) and en route automation systems (ERAM).
U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, R-Mass., asked if a re-evaluation is needed on NextGen.
The U.S. and NextGen are “in a significant leadership position and in a place to drive what international standards are going to be. For us to take a step back is serious,” Huerta said.
Scovel said in his report that “since the effort began in fiscal year 2004, we have reported on cost increases and delays as well as challenges that FAA must address to successfully transition.”
Some of these challenges include the stringent guidelines by the FAA. Though the PBN system is available at some airports, clear direction on how to use it is not. Air traffic controllers have not been properly trained, do not have a handbook for the system, nor are they able to simultaneously work the old and new system efficiently, Scovel said. In addition, some of the systems require more automation or give more power of control to the pilots, a step which has not been organized well enough to execute, he said.
Huerta said that in the major metro airports, such as Atlanta, NextGen already has proven to reduce congestion by about 10 percent, allowing at least eight to 12 more planes to take off per hour. In addition, it can help planes fly more efficiently — burning less fuel and traveling fewer miles. Flights from Dulles International and Reagan National will save about $2.3 million in fuel costs per year, he said.
LoBiondo asked if the eventual progress of NextGen will diminish the work at the technical center in Egg Harbor Township.
Huerta said the center will continue to be a primary center, because it is the key to implementing the projects created by NextGen.
As of January, about 4,500 people work on the tech center's campus, which includes the tech center itself, the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing, the federal Transportation Security Laboratory, the federal Air Marshal Training Center and Atlantic City International Airport. Of the total, about 1,500 are FAA employees, 1,500 are FAA contractors, and the remaining 1,500 are employed by the other entities.
The newest obstacle in the path of NextGen is federal budget cuts, which have cut funding to FAA, as well as a proposed House appropriations bill that would cut into the capital improvement funds for the program.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said the proposed $2.1 billion appropriation would be the lowest levels since 2000 for the FAA.
Scovel said the funding proposed would limit efforts and would be able only to sustain the system, without allowing any further growth. He said 4.7 percent of the targeted FAA cuts affect NextGen projects and the anticipated capital improvement funds was less than requested by more than half a billion dollars.
One of the projects, ERAM, has come in about $330 million over the initial budget and struggled with software issues. Now that it is available in 16 of 20 air traffic control towers where it is planned, the problem still remains that it is only used part time because of improper training and tools for the controllers.
But Scovel said that funding issues are a recent problem and did not span the 10 years of NextGen's existence.
Huerta said the fiscal uncertainty in the government will play a major role on whether the program cuts down the number of projects it is working on or if it can afford to continue bringing more projects out of their infancy.
But, he said, the cost to complete the NextGen systems is less than the cost to delay the process.
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