U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation Holds Hearing on FAA’s NextGen and ATC Modernization Efforts

On March 18, 2009, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing entitled “Air Traffic Control Modernization and the Next Generation Air Transportation System:  Near-Term Achievable Goals.” The Subcommittee and the FAA are placing much of their hopes and dreams on the viability and success of NextGen and Air Traffic Control Modernization.  In opening comments, it seemed that if ATC Modernization and NextGen are fully implemented all of the current ills of the FAA will be resolved and world peace will be achieved:  safety will be improved, delays will be diminished, air traffic controllers will be able to handle more operations more quickly and more efficiently, pilots will be able to fly better, and, oh, it is good for the environment, too.  While, only being a tad sarcastic, it seems that many dreams have been placed on NexGen’s shoulders.

There can be no doubt that NextGen is needed.  All of the technical witnesses testified that ATC modernization and NextGen are absolutely critical to maintaining the U.S.’s airspace.  Captain Rory Kay, Executive Air Safety Chairman of ALPA, stated that:

NextGen has the potential to revolutionize the National Airspace System and our air transportation system . . . Forecasted increases in air traffic of two to three times today’s traffic cannot be met in today’s NAS.

So what are the problems?  First and foremost, it is a question of funding. As former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stated, in testimony as President and CEO of Aerospace Industries Association:

Much of what is needed for NextGen falls under the category of “new starts” which, as you well know, are prohibited under funding extensions. A large number of FAA NextGen pre-implementation issues – including development and acquisition decisions, have been adversely affected.

Now that FAA Reauthorization has been put on the back burner with the passage of yet another continuing resolution, do not look for these new NextGen projects to see the light of day any time soon.

Another issue is human resources.  NextGen represents a fundamental shift in the responsibilities and practices of pilots and air traffic controllers.  As Patrick Forrey, President of National Air Traffic Controllers Association, stated:

Under the proposed system, air traffic control would shift to what the FAA is euphemistically referring to as “Trajectory Management.”  Essentially, air traffic controllers would discontinue active air traffic control and shift instead to air traffic monitoring and route management.  This could have serious implications for the safety of the NAS.

NATCA worries that “air traffic managers” would rely heavily on an automated system and not how to handle an emergency situation should the automated system go down.

For the airlines and general aviation, the problem with NextGen is the “equipage.”  NextGen relies on up-to-date technology not only on the ground, but on the aircraft.  In the early 2000’s, for example, American Airlines retrofitted its fleet to install the Controller Pilot Data Link Communication system only to have FAA abandon its efforts in 2004.  Airlines probably will be reluctant to equip their fleets until the FAA is able to effectively address the legitimate concern that the technology is good investment.  And that is difficult to do when the funding for the programs to develop the technology is not in place and has not been in place for the past 2 years.

All this assumes that the FAA has in place the management infrastructure to effectively manage and implement NextGen.  Although the GAO pulled ATC Modernization off of its “High-Risk” list, NextGen, as soon as its implementation begins will land on the list.  The GAO has found that the JPDO and ATO have made progress in planning for and developing NextGen, but much is left to do.  As Calvin Scovel, the Department of Transportation Inspector General pointed out, the FAA needs to :

(1) establish[ ] priorities and Agency commitments with stakeholders and reflecting them in budget and plans; (2) manage[ ] NextGen initiatives as portfolios and establish[ ] clear lines of responsibility, authority, accountability; (3) acquire[ ] the necessary skill mix for managing and executing NextGen; and (4) examine[ ] what can reasonably be implemented in given time increments.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) stated that this was a “foundational” hearing on a topic of importance.  While Congress debates FAA Reauthorization, NextGen and ATC Modernization must move forward.

Summary of the hearing drafted by the Subcommittee on Aviation Staff.

Written Testimony:

Panel 1

Panel 2

Video of the Hearing

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