Politics turning NowGen into ‘Not-quite-yetGen’

 - September 24, 2008, 5:57 AM

The prospect of instituting near-term ATC improvements as industry waits for the arrival of NextGen in the 2020s seems now to have been delayed for at least another year, and probably longer, by the possibility of political change after November’s presidential election. The near-term initiatives, collectively known as NowGen, proposed accelerating FAA plans and taking advantage of unused capabilities of currently installed ground equipment, to improve capacity and reduce delays.

But these improvements, which require little or no capital investment, have been essentially set aside by political considerations. First, due to ongoing concerns about FAA practices and expenditures, Congress has yet to approve the agency’s FY2008 budget appropriations–which it would normally have done late last summer–forcing the agency to operate this year within the limits of its FY2007 allocations, under periodically renewed “continuing resolutions” in Congress. As a result, the agency has been forced to forego new programs and, in some cases, reduce operations.

Plans Change with New Leadership
Second, to some extent, the transformation of the ATC system is influenced by the outcome of the November elections. If the Democrats oust the Republicans–as some analysts expect–they might assign a different priority to ATC. In fact, they have made public announcements indicating that ATC is not a top priority.

Also fueling senior FAA officials’ caution with regard to new initiatives is the fact that next January the new president will appoint a new Transportation Secretary and a new FAA Administrator. Both appointees might be learning on the job for several months and quite possibly have their own agendas.

One of NowGen’s top priorities had been the thorny issue of rerouting the heavy traffic streams around New York that are said to cause two-thirds of the delays across the country. Completing the FAA’s earlier rerouting plans–which have already aroused volatile public reaction with regard to noise and pollution issues–is something that the new appointees might be reluctant to tackle without further consultation. Other NowGen proposals could suffer a similar fate.

As one FAA official told AIN, “NowGen has become ‘Not-quite- yetGen.’” He added, “At times like these, we really envy privatized organizations like Nav Canada, which have no political masters.”

The schedule cutbacks and bankruptcies that have swept the U.S. airline industry due to the price of oil could create those increases in airspace capacity and reductions in delays that NowGen proponents were aiming for.

When United Airlines grounded its Boeing 737 fleet in July, many analysts predicted that unless oil fell below $100 a barrel, by mid-2009 U.S. airlines could reduce their domestic passenger carrying capacity by as much as 20 percent and be flying many fewer aircraft, primarily their newest, largest and most fuel-efficient machines. Analysts also predicted that of these, airlines would place as many as practical on much more profitable international routes. Such a move could see the complete withdrawal of airline service from as many as 200 U.S. domestic airports, thus providing expanded opportunities for corporate aviation.