Challenges ahead for NextGen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA is entering its midterm implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and, while advances have been made, there remain many issues and challenges.

That is pointed out in a new report put together by the Government Accountability Office at the request of leaders of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Midterm is considered 2013 through 2018.

While NextGen was developed primarily with the airlines in mind, general aviation is affected in many ways. In addition to the expenses involved in equipping or retrofitting to use NextGen technologies, the costs required to expand capacity at major airports may reduce the benefits of NextGen and affect operations for non-airline flying as well.

Even if all ongoing and planned NextGen technologies are implemented, some of the busiest airports will not be able to meet projected increases in demand and will need additional capacity. FAA recognizes this and believes that ongoing runway development programs are still needed at airports such as Chicago-O’Hare, Philadelphia International and others to meet long-term demand.

Without more runway capacity, either there will be no benefit from faster approaches, or it may be necessary to restrict some traffic. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what flights will be restricted.

An issue cited in the new GAO report is the lack of involvement of “stakeholders,” including everyone from airports, air traffic controllers, and, to a large degree, different departments and divisions of the FAA itself. These groups feel the FAA is not involving them enough to allow planning for efficient advancement of NextGen goals and to plan for expenditures.

The FAA estimates it will cost $260,000 in 2011 dollars to equip a commercial aircraft, or $525,000 to retrofit one, to gainfully use NextGen advances. Airlines and other stakeholders have expressed skepticism about the progress made to date by the FAA, which, in turn, has affected their confidence about whether the promised benefits will justify this kind of investment.

In addition to involving aviation stakeholders, the numerous improvements required for full NextGen implementation involve many parts of the FAA and, in many cases, are mutually dependent in order to attain the full projected benefits. For example, the benefits of more efficient air-traffic control routes (called “procedures”) may be limited if air traffic controllers do not have access to tools to better manage airborne traffic.

Through 2018, the FAA plans to focus on 30 core airports and key traffic facilities for implementation of Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures. PNB permits direct flight rather than following airways. At airports it allows constant descent from high altitudes instead of the traditional step-down approach, which means it requires less communication with controllers.

In its 71-page report, the GAO recommends including better integration of NextGen efforts, development of processes for selecting new PBN procedures, and ensuring that stakeholders have the information they need on NextGen progress to facilitate investment decisions.

GAO prepared its report before sequestration took effect which limits federal government spending. If these limits stay in place, it is expected that progress on NextGen will be slowed.


  1. Jerry Olson says

    Call me a pessimist, (I call it realist) but when was the last time ANY large, expensive, or complex federal program was delivered on-time or within budget? I don’t know of one.

    Combine this with the planned influx of drones in the same 2020 timeframe, and I see major problems on the horizon. The drones will obviously be built and expect to function in a fully functional next-gen environment.

    What did Montana Senator Max Baucus call Obamacare? A train-wreck?

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