WASHINGTON, D.C. — Cost overruns, time delays, and management mistakes are all causing the NextGen program to be at risk.
That, in brief, was what members of Congress heard from witnesses at a recent hearing of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Two government watchdogs particularly were critical of the FAA’s handling of the program. The Inspector General for the Transportation Department and a director from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized handling of the program that is supposed to revolutionize the air traffic system.
The program originally was scheduled to cost $44 billion and be completed by 2014. Cost to the government was expected to be $22 billion with costs to users making up the rest. Now, 2016 is seen as a more realistic date and cost overruns are forecast as $300 million, but less optimistic forecasts see it reaching $500 million.
So far, $2.8 billion has been appropriated. A new computer system is the foundation of the next generation of air traffic management and it has been plagued with problems. This program was expected to cost $2.1 billion. Software for the program — known as ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization) — is a major part of the problem. DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III told the committee that contractor Lockheed Martin delivered an incomplete software package and the mistakes were discovered by air traffic controllers. He added that ERAM’s problems are a direct result of “poor management.” ERAM was scheduled to be completed by December of last year, but is still suffering from problems.
The FAA has made some progress, GAO’s Gerald Dillingham said, noting the agency hired a transportation expert as assistant administrator and put him in charge of NextGen.
Congress, which has already appropriated $2.8 billion for the program, is looking to approve more appropriations. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said, “we cannot rely on outdated technology if we are going to ensure an aviation system as efficient and safe as possible. We need to get a better handle on the program.” Mica, who chairs the full Transportation and Technology Committee, emphasized, “it is not a matter of money, it’s a question of management.”
Some Democrats disagree and question whether the problems are a result of the program being underfunded. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) asked, “at what point is doing more with less just adding to the problem and making it even more difficult for it to succeed on time and on budget?”
He added that simply providing more funding is not the entire solution to successful NextGen implementation. “My concern is what happens when we add severe budget constraints on top of logistical program delays?”
Reduced funding seems certain. A special committee has been given the chore of finding $1.5 trillion to cut from the federal budget and it is expected that the high cost of NextGen is certain to attract the attention of this new group. The House already wants to cut $200 million from the FAA budget next year.
What might be cut is unknown. Some contracts have been let and other as yet have not. While Congress wrestles with cutting the deficit over the next several months, aviation interests will keep their eyes on the FAA and NextGen.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.