ATC: Are we headed for a meltdown?

WASHINGTON. —The FAA has spent more than $43 billion on the air traffic control (ATC) system over the past 25 years and plans to spend an additional $9.6 billion through fiscal year 2009 — and the system “”is not much different from that used in the 1960s,”” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said recently when opening a Congressional hearing into the future of ATC modernization.

Mica, who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, declared this to be “”one of the worst acquisition overruns in the history of government.””

The National Air Space (NAS) modernization effort, launched in 1981 during the Ronald Reagan administration, was expected to be completed by 1996 at a cost of $2.5 billion.

Mica cited several reasons claimed for the cost overruns and timetable slippage. Among these are: inadequate program funding, growth in system requirements, and controllers and maintenance personnel not sufficiently involved in the planning and purchasing. Expressing concern that the next decade might result in a “”meltdown”” of the ATC, he suggested it might be time to bring more industry activity into the program.

“”The entire system has to be redone,”” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich), who also commented that changes in the system to accommodate growth must take into consideration what could happen in the event of armed conflict, citing the vulnerability of satellites. After hearing testimony from several witnesses, he later declared that what he heard at this hearing was “”one of the most upbeat hearings on the subject in the last decade.”” Witnesses included Russell Chew, FAA’s chief operating officer of the air traffic organization, and Robert Pearce, acting director of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO). The JPDO was established by Congress to develop a vision for the next generation air transport system. It is chaired by the FAA and includes officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security.

In their joint statement, Chew and Pearce cited improving the organization structure of FAA for more efficiency and cost savings, cutting executive staffing, outsourcing Flight Service Stations, reduced vertical separation, and the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) as examples of a change in direction. The reduced vertical separation move, they said, should save airlines $5 billion through 2016, while the URET saved airlines 25 million miles of aircraft travel and $175 million in operating expenses last year. In FY2005, 92% of scheduled goals were met for 31 programs and 97% of major acquisition programs met budget goals, the duo reported.All the cost and time savings reported by the witnesses referred only to airlines and made no mention of the needs, costs or effects to general aviation.

Increased air travel requires more rapid development of an effective ATC. Airline travel is forecast to double by 2015, while the coming very light jets, manned commercial space launches, hypersonic transport aircraft, and vertical takeoff and landing vehicles will produce more demand than today’s system can handle. If the government is not able to provide ATC service to meet the demand, estimates are that it will cost consumers $30 billion a year due to people and products not reaching their destinations within the time periods we expect today.

All of this forecasts changes en route and airport situations for airlines and for general aviation. Projections developed by the FAA, DOT, and the MITRE Corp., which has development contracts with the FAA, indicate that in seven years 16 airports and seven metropolitan areas will need additional capacity to accommodate traffic.

Competition between general aviation and the bus and truck lines of the air for airspace and airports undoubtedly will continue.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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