House Hearing Sheds Little Light on NextGen

 - October 3, 2012, 3:00 AM

NextGen is such a vast project, with so many interdependencies–where even if System A is complete and ready to go, it needs Systems B and C before it can be placed into service, and they now won’t be ready for another year or two–that predicting completion dates is a risky business. And predicting the final costs of uncompleted items could be even chancier.

ADS-B is a good case in point. An FAA document presented at the hearing stated that the ADS-B program started in August 2007, with the projected completion date of September 2014 coinciding tidily with the originally forecast completion date, and with the projected completion cost just a tad (well, $45 million) over the originally estimated $1.68 billion. As the old saying goes, close enough for government work. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that ADS-B will be ready to go next September.

Aviation subcommittee hearings always include two individuals that FAA must feel represent the Dark Side, namely the Inspector General (IG) of the FAA’s parent, the Department of Transportation, and the Director of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) representing Congress, and each take their responsibilities seriously. So it was the IG who pointed out that the FAA still faces a number of challenges to realizing ADS-B’s full benefits, including finalizing cockpit traffic displays; modifying air traffic controller systems; addressing frequency congestion; implementing separation procedures and assessing security vulnerabilities. All these will take time, and money, particularly in countering increasingly sophisticated external threats, such as jamming and spoofing.

‘Re-baselining’ Complicates Cost Review

Besides ADS-B, the FAA document lists six other typical programs, costing between $115 million and $1.52 billion, and with projected completion dates between 2014 and 2019. All six projected completion dates were identical to those in their original contracts, as were the projected completion costs, with nary a dollar over or under the cost estimated some years before completion.

Possibly, this resulted from a process that the FAA describes as “re-baselining.” In earlier reports of major FAA programs, AIN described one of the FAA’s most nightmarish endeavors in modernizing the legacy Host upper-airspace computer system with the latest technology and software, when it will become the En Route Automation System (Eram). But the problems, which are still being encountered, have pushed up the contract completion cost estimate by a third of a billion, from $2.16 billion to $2.49 billion, with completion slipping from 2010 to 2014. However, through the magic of re-baselining, Acting Administrator Michael Huerta could tell the Subcommittee, “Eram has been successfully refocused and is on time and on budget.”

Unfortunately, Eram is a foundational element in NextGen, so that its completion date slippage will have a domino effect on its dependencies in ADS-B such as DataComm and the Internet-like aviation system wide information management (Swim) system. Delayed deliveries inevitably cost more money.

Establishing Metrics

The GAO expressed concern about the lack of public measurable operational results, or metrics, from NextGen capabilities, along with implementation dates and locations. Without this information, operators will be hesitant to make new equipment investments. Separately, the FAA had estimated that for private operators the cost of realizing NextGen benefits would be between $5 billion and $7 billion through 2020, while the RTCA had estimated it would cost from $150,000 to $650,000 to equip a regional jet with an RNP package. However, while the FAA Modernization and Reform Act authorized the creation of public-private financing arrangements, no funding has been appropriated and the FAA has yet to decide how to offer incentives for such a program.

In parallel, the GAO underscored the need to continue to budget for the operation of legacy systems should the introduction of NextGen systems be delayed during the planned 20-year transition from legacy systems to their NextGen replacements. According to the FAA, 65 percent of its terminal facilities and 74 percent of its en route facilities are in either poor or fair condition, with a total deferred maintenance backlog of $310 million for those facilities.

NextGen In Need of a Leader

In recent months there have been some rearrangements of responsibilities at FAA upper management levels under Huerta to improve the lines of communications and decision making. But the agency still lacks a chief NextGen officer, who would essentially be NextGen’s technical director, with complete responsibility for the development, testing, production, service introduction and continuing support of NextGen systems. Such a person was described as a vital early key to successful NextGen development and program management in a paper presented by Michael Lewis of Boeing to an Air Traffic Control Association Convention several years ago. Hindsight tells us that had the FAA taken Lewis’s advice and appointed such a person upon launching NextGen, many of its subsequent problems might well have been nipped in the bud.

At the FAA’s New Technology Symposium early last year, Huerta announced that NextGen would indeed be appointing a top-level program manager, but this was delayed for unspecified reasons. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act re-introduced the position and called for the appointment of a chief NextGen officer, but the FAA advised the Subcommittee that such an appointment must await the appointment of a new agency Administrator. Unfortunately, with the federal election now just a few weeks away, it seems extremely unlikely that an appointment will be made until late January at the earliest and, depending on the aviation background and experience of the person chosen, it could take some time before he or she is up to speed in the new position.

When NextGen was first introduced, it seemed to be an all-embracing solution to aviation’s needs. But closer examination appears to reveal that it may need augmentation beyond that which is currently planned.

In his testimony to the Subcommittee, GAO director of physical infrastructure Gerald Dillingham stated “Although NextGen is projected to keep delays at many airports from getting worse than would be expected without these improvements [which he had described] NextGen alone is not likely to sufficiently expand the capacity of the national airspace system.” In fact, he reported, NextGen modeling currently indicates that “even if all ongoing and planned NextGen technologies are implemented, 14 airports–including some of the 35 busiest–may not be able to meet the projected increases in demand.”

For the DoT, Inspector General Calvin Scovel noted that “Between Fiscal Years 2013 and 2017, the FAA plans to spend $2.4 billion on transformational programs. While the FAA is making some progress implementing these programs, their costs, schedules and performance remain uncertain because the FAA has yet to baseline the total programs or develop an integrated master schedule to manage and coordinate NextGen’s implementation.” Scovel added, “Without a complete master schedule, the FAA will continue to be challenged to fully mitigate operational, technical and programmatic risks, and prioritize tradeoffs among its NextGen programs. These challenges are significant and will require sustained management attention and action to safeguard taxpayers’ investment while improving NAS efficiency and safety.”