Ten years into the NextGen ATC modernization effort, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration faces ongoing cost, schedule and technical risks in achieving its objectives of managing increasing air traffic more efficiently, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general’s office.
In testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee on July 17, DOT IG Calvin Scovel said the FAA's performance is falling short of expectations for NextGen due to “several underlying programmatic and organizational weaknesses.” He said the effort lacks an “executable” plan because of unstable requirements, unresolved critical design issues, frequent turnover in leadership and undefined promises of benefits.
The Vision 100–Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act that President George W. Bush signed in December 2003 launched the NextGen modernization. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), the aviation subcommittee chairman, said the latest IG report on its progress “provides an opportunity for all of us to hit the reset button and make sure that we are headed in the right direction” on NextGen.
Appearing at the hearing with Scovel, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta defended his agency’s progress. “We are delivering the objectives of NextGen as promised,” he said. “We have consistently met more than 80 percent of our implementation milestones over the last five years, which is extraordinary when dealing with a complex technological program. Overall, NextGen is on track and, yes, there have been delays. But we’ve learned from these and incorporated those lessons in the way we move forward.”
Huerta said the FAA has made possible a 20-percent increase in airport capacity at Memphis International Airport by revising wake turbulence separation standards. Reducing the “divergence” angle of departing aircraft led to a 10-percent increase in departures per hour from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, saving airlines $20 million in fuel and reduced waiting times in one year.
Scovel reported ongoing risks and delays in the FAA’s “metroplex” initiative to improve traffic flows at congested metropolitan airports, in its consolidation of ATC facilities at central locations and in its implementation of new automation systems at terminal and en route facilities. Even the agency’s near-term priority of developing more efficient, “performance-based” navigation (PBN) procedures for airport arrivals and departures faces limitations due to the lengthy process of developing the procedures and the lack of controller policies for authorizing them. Only 3 percent of eligible airline flights use advanced PBN procedures at six large airports in the New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., areas, the IG said.
Scovel’s report also described as unrealistic the FAA’s initial goal of completing the NextGen modernization in 2025 at a cost of $40 billion to government and industry. It said that an internal study in 2009 by the multi-agency Joint Planning and Development Office found that the FAA’s NextGen plans “were not risk-adjusted to realistically reflect what was technologically feasible and therefore could not be implemented as promised.” The study concludes that achieving NextGen will cost significantly more and take up to 10 years longer than originally planned.
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