NextGen getting on track but problems persist

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After long delays and high cost overruns, development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is starting to get back on track, but because of program problems, users of the system are reluctant to invest in equipment for their aircraft.

The FAA has been spending about $1 billion a year since the program was launched almost nine years ago. Expenditure for the completed project is forecast to be $20 billion to $27 billion, making it one of the largest single projects undertaken by the federal government.

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General for the Department of Transportation, told a Congressional Aviation Subcommittee that the developers of NextGen have faced 900 software problems.

One area overlooked and which must be addressed is congestion at airports. Dr. Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said faster, more efficient movement of aircraft into airports will create more congestion unless action is taken to expand runways and ground facilities. Based on forecasts, current airports will not be able to handle all the projected traffic. Previous conditions have resulted in moving general aviation farther out. As an example, Chicago’s Midway airport had taken GA traffic as O’Hare got busier and now Midway is busy with airline flights. Dillingham told the legislators that the developers of NextGen need to bring local communities into the planning and funding.

Bringing others into the planning has started the turn around. Air traffic controllers, airline organizations, general aviation and others now meet with FAA. Panelists affirmed support for NextGen and emphasized the importance of being in the loop as the program progresses. These panelists spoke for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, general aviation, the airline industry, and the Port of New York Authority.

Getting the project on the way to meeting schedules and staying within costs began some two years ago when Michael Huerta was hired as assistant administrator of the FAA and put in charge of the program. Since the resignation of administrator Randy Babbitt, he has been acting administrator, wearing both hats as FAA boss and the person in charge of NextGen.

Subcommittee members, critical of past delays and budget overruns, pressed Huerta to keep the program on track, to keep them informed about progress, and make sure private industry stays involved.

As one representative chided, delays in the past makes him think the program should not be called just NextGen but Next-Next, NextGen.


Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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