WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is months behind schedule and FAA management faces many challenges before the massive project completes its movement from the planning stages to implementation.
Meanwhile, industry representatives are concerned that the effort might not deliver all the desired benefits since the FAA has focused on limited airspace and procedure improvements rather than maximizing new technologies and advanced procedures, as recommended by a government-industry task force in 2009.
That is from a recent report from Calvin L. Scovel II, Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, designed to identify the NextGen management challenges for fiscal year 2013.
These criticisms, however, might not be bad for general aviation as the FAA says it is taking the current approach to avoid potentially extensive environmental reviews and accommodate all airspace users, not just those equipped to fly advanced procedures. Nearly half of all commercial aircraft are equipped to fly the advanced procedures and representatives from those airlines complain that the FAA’s approach offers little operational or financial benefits to the airlines.
After the task force’s recommendation, the FAA began a seven-year effort to improve the flow of traffic at 13 major metropolitan areas. The agency has completed initial studies to identify and recommend airspace and procedural improvements at seven of the locations and is performing design work at six.
The Inspector General’s report says the FAA has not resolved a number of barriers, including working across diverse agency lines, updating policies streamlining the process of implementing new flight procedures, applying environmental regulations, upgrading controller automation tools, and training controllers on new advanced procedures.
FAA management also face challenges successfully implementing the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program. This $2.1 billion system is designed to replace hardware and software at air traffic control facilities that manage high-altitude traffic. Completion was scheduled for the end of 2010, but software problems impacted the system’s ability to safely manage and separate aircraft. The inability to resolve those problems raise questions as to what capabilities ERAM will ultimately deliver, according to the IG’s report, which warns that if the software problems persist, delays could stretch out to 2016.
Additional management decisions the FAA must make include the number of air traffic facilities needed to support NextGen. This could be a long-time effort. NextGen planning was based on the traditional arrangement of en route centers and TRACONs, not integrated facilities.
In his report, Scovel says the FAA has not established total program costs, schedules, or program baselines for any of the NextGen six transformational programs. The agency plans to approve these programs in shorter segments. He warns that without a clear end-state, decision makers lack sufficient information to assess progress. He said the FAA has made some progress, but is still working to identify what type of data it needs, such as key system dependencies, to complete a master schedule.
In defense of the FAA, a major problem in planning has been the lack of a long-term budget. Until recently, the agency was operating on a series of short-term extensions, making it difficult to firm up long-term plans without long-term budgeting. The current financial problems of a massive debt and debates over taxation, i.e., the fiscal cliff, might well further complicate FAA’s development of NextGen.
Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.