Challenges ahead for modern ATC program

 - September 13, 2006, 6:06 AM

Two federal watchdog agencies told Congress that the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) needs a permanent director and long-range funding to ensure the success of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) and the modernization of the National Airspace System (NAS) to handle traffic loads expected by 2025.

At the outset of yet another hearing on ATC modernization, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, noted that the subcommittee first addressed the topic of ATC modernization nearly a quarter-century ago during the first term of the Reagan Administration. “I feel like it’s Groundhog Day,” he said.

Since then, the federal government has spent nearly $44 billion in taxpayer dollars on “a seemingly Quixotic quest” to upgrade the nation’s ATC system, which still relies upon costly, ground-based, 30-year-old technology “that is best suited for the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

“Until recently, the ATC modernization effort has been plagued by cost overruns, scheduling delays and mismanagement, making this one of the worst acquisition programs in the history of the United States government,” Mica declared.

But he commended FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and Russ Chew, COO of the FAA’s air traffic organization (ATO), for their leadership and efforts to get “the vast majority” of the current ATC modernization programs on time and within budget. He had high praise for former airline pilot Chew, whom he called “one of the finest public servants I have seen.”

Mica said that under Chew’s leadership, the ATO is starting to resemble the performance-based, value-driven organization that Congress envisioned. “Both the GAO [Government Accountability Office] and DOT Inspector General found that the ATO has made significant progress in meeting cost, schedule and performance targets for its major ATC acquisition programs,” he added.

Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues for the GAO, testified that the JPDO is making progress in its planning for NGATS but faces several challenges. He pointed out that the JPDO is fundamentally a planning and coordinating body that lacks authority over the key human and technological resources needed to continue developing plans and system requirements for NGATS.

As part of its planning, the multi-agency JPDO is developing a cost estimate for NGATS through a series of workshops with various stakeholders. Meanwhile, it faces several challenges, including maintaining stakeholder support over the long term, defining roles and responsibilities and deciding how to coordinate the implementation of NGATS. It must also address several critical policy issues, such as the extent to which NGATS will accommodate visual flights versus instrument-only flights.

The GAO said the JPDO has taken several important first steps in developing an NGATS “enterprise architecture”–a blueprint for NGATS and one of the most critical planning documents in the NGATS effort.

Todd Zinser, acting inspector general for the DOT, told the aviation subcommittee that several actions are critical for the JPDO to make progress in both the short and long term and to make the transition from planning to implementation. “Key questions for the FAA and the JPDO focus on what the new office can deliver, when and how much this transition will cost,” he said. “They are central questions in the discussion about how best to finance the FAA and will shape the size, requirements and direction of the capital program for the next decade.”

In response to questions from the House panel, Zinser said that finding leadership for the JPDO– which is currently operating under an acting director–is critical, and the FAA needs to find the right person. “Leadership will be important to align diverse agency efforts and bridge the gap between the [ATO’s] near-term planning horizon and the JPDO’s longer-term mission to transform the National Airspace System,” he said.
Although the JPDO was established within the FAA, it consists of NASA, as well as the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security.
Zinser said that the JPDO mission is critical given that the FAA conducts little long-term air traffic management research and the fact that most of the agency’s current $2.5 billion capital account is dedicated to keeping things running.

Mica concurred. “It is important to note that most of the FAA’s existing $2.5 billion capital account, which is a half-billion dollars short of the amount authorized by Congress, goes for keeping the existing ATC system running, not NGATS-related programs,” he said.

Zinser added, “The cost of NGATS remains uncertain and much work remains to refine costs, align diverse agency budgets and set expectations for airspace users with respect to milestones, equipage and anticipated benefits.”

The government has already invested $44 billion in NGATS, and, according to Mica, the ATO estimates that the system will cost another $15 to $18 billion. Further, the FAA predicts a funding gap of between $500 million and $1.2 billion over the next five years between its capital account and NGATS requirements.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, added, “Nothing will kill modernization like an under-funded system.”