NextGen on track, but has a long way to go

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The next generation air transportation system (NextGen) is getting on track but still has a long way to go and problems to overcome, according to testimony given to the House Subcommittee on Aviation Wednesday.

The hearing was the first to discuss a report from the Radio Technical Commission on Aeronautics (RTCA) task force. In January, Congress asked RTCA to have a task force study NextGen programs after several years of confusion with little input from groups outside the FAA. The RTCA task force drew together 305 people from 141 different organizations to study NextGen. Its report, issued in September, listed 29 recommendations. Key issues were the importance of using available technology to gain benefits now and and to coordinate changes on airports with the addition of new equipment in the aircraft. The task force also said NextGen should be an “evolutional” project with less focus on dates in the future.

User groups who must invest heavily in new equipment for their aircraft need to see the benefits now from those investments, the report asserts, noting that technology is moving so swiftly that some fear anything purchased now will be outdated by the time a full NextGen program is in place. Discussions between members of the subcommittee and witnesses centered on making sure that significant improvements can be made to reduce congestion and increase efficiency to save fuel, which will make investments worthwhile.

The FAA is studying the RTCA’s recommendations, but has not yet determined which can be implemented. One move is to appoint a deputy administrator with responsibility to coordinate NextGen. A major complaint in the past has been the lack of a central authority to coordinate all elements of the program.

Questions from Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) brought assurances that general aviation was being included in all steps of the NextGen program. Officials from RTCA and the FAA assured him that general aviation was included in discussions and its needs are a major part of the program. One issue to be ironed out is whether the present method of first come, first served in air traffic should be replaced with best equipped, best served. Many question whether that would be practical and acceptable.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, raised the question of whether the FAA is capable of handling the multi-million contracts called for in the NextGen program. He said the agency has struggled in the past, but that RTCA’s work “is a major milestone.”

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

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