NextGen delays continue

WASHINGTON, D.C. — NextGen (the Next Generation Air Transportation System) is running into problems, causing delays, which mean the program might not be fully operational before the half-century-old radar-based system is scheduled to be replaced. Seven government agencies and offices are involved with the FAA in developing NextGen. The House Subcommittee on Aviation recently held its fourth hearing to see how well this group is working together to make the transition from radar to a satellite-based program. The findings? Mixed reviews, with most pointing to poor leadership, funding problems, a lack of coordination between agencies, and not including controllers and users in the decision making.

On the positive side, there is success in some areas, like ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). But many problems need to be resolved. For instance, problems discovered when the first step of the program was tried at Salt Lake City included no acceptable way to hand off a flight from one controller to the next, radar processing failures, and key information being assigned to the wrong aircraft. The FAA has been spending $14 million a month trying to resolve these and other problems. Also, the FAA has yet to make certain key decisions about NextGen, such as how much responsibility can or should be delegated to pilots.

Another sticking point: The inability of various agencies to share the costs of the modernized air traffic control system. A Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) within the FAA was established by Congressional action to get the agencies working together. Those agencies include the Department Of Transportation, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the White House Office of Science and Technology.

The JPDO has met “infrequently,” Dr. George Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office told committee members. In fact, since it was established in 2003, the JPDO has met only four times.

These agencies must share information for NextGen to work and the FAA has not yet defined what each agency’s role is to be, meaning agencies aren’t able to budget or to even agree if they are willing or able to accept a specified role, he reported.

A panel of witnesses told the committee there has been a lack of leadership and frequent turnovers in personnel, adding to the difficulties. Dr. Karlin Toner, current director of JPDO, has been in the position only two months. She is the fourth person to hold that position.

Until recently, responsibility for NextGen was spread throughout the FAA. Now, Turner reports directly to the acting associate administrator, another temporary appointment. Confirmation of a nominee to fill that position is held up in the Senate.

Dillingham cited another issue that developers of NextGen have not tackled. He declared there is no plan for new runways, without which other parts of the program will not be effective. By 2030 the FAA estimates the number of passengers carried by airlines will increase 75% over 2009 and operations at the nation’s 35 busiest airports will increase 60%. Without more runways — or more airports — the system will not be able to use the advantages of NextGen, continuing the arguments over who can use the airspace.

In his opening statement, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), ranking member of the subcommittee, reminded others that some parts of the program are mired in environmental review processes mandated by Congress. These procedures, he said, “can take years and cost millions of dollars.”

Congress shares some of the blame for the NextGen problems, said Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, because of its failure to pass FAA reauthorization.

He expressed impatience with the FAA’s handling of the NextGen program, charging that the FAA has not learned how to handle multi-billion dollar programs. He promised his committee will keep the spotlight on the NextGen program and closed with the statement that the FAA “had damn well start doing something.”

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

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