DOT and FAA: Budget Cuts Could Stymie NextGen

 - August 1, 2013, 1:42 AM

The FAA’s NextGen ATC modernization program faces long-term technical risks and still uncertain acceptance by airspace users. But after a decade in development, NextGen could be stalled by a nearer-term threat: substantially reduced funding from Congress. In June, the House appropriations committee released transportation funding legislation for Fiscal Year 2014 that would reduce the FAA’s capital funding account, which supports NextGen programs, to its lowest level since 2000.

The House appropriations “mark,” which is subject to the legislative approval process in the Congress, cast a shadow over a House aviation subcommittee hearing on July 17 that was called to consider NextGen’s overall progress and ongoing challenges. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member, said the $2.1 billion allocated for the FAA’s facilities and equipment account is 22 percent below the agency’s request and less than Congress provided in the current fiscal year.

Larsen asked Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Calvin Scovel and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to comment on the potential impact of the proposed legislation on NextGen. “Our understanding is that at those funding levels, the agency would be required to constrain its efforts greatly in regard to NextGen and, in fact, would have to devote all of its attention and much of its funding permitted by Congress to simply sustaining the current system,” Scovel said. Huerta concurred. “What this forces us to do is to make tradeoffs between continued maintenance of the current infrastructure and NextGen modernization efforts,” he said.

More Impediments to Progress

The funding issue distracted from the DOT IG’s latest report on NextGen’s progress, which found that the FAA is falling short of expectations for the program due to “several underlying programmatic and organizational weaknesses.” Even the FAA’s near-term priority of developing more efficient, performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures, including area navigation (Rnav) and required navigation performance (RNP) approaches and departures, is limited by the lengthy process of developing the procedures and the lack of controller policies for authorizing them. While the use of PBN procedures is high at some small- to medium-sized airports, only 3 percent of eligible airline flights use them at six large airports in the New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas where the FAA has introduced advanced procedures, the IG said.

Despite some progress, the FAA continues to face technical, cost and schedule risks to installing new automation systems for terminal and en route ATC facilities–respectively, the Raytheon Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (Stars) and Lockheed Martin’s En route Automation Modernization (Eram) system. Without those automation platforms running, the FAA “cannot maximize” new PBN routes or implement longer-term NextGen programs such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and data communications, the IG said.

NextGen’s benefits to airspace users remain largely undefined, a deficiency that has generated industry skepticism and reluctance to invest in the necessary equipment, according to Scovel. “NextGen’s success depends in part on obtaining buy-in from key stakeholders, particularly airspace users, who elect to purchase and install costly NextGen avionics in their aircraft to achieve NextGen capabilities,” the IG said. “Without widespread equipage, the FAA will be unable to markedly increase capacity or save fuel through NextGen systems.”