FAA's NextGen Making Progress, Airline Pilots Union Asserts

 - February 15, 2017, 9:05 AM
United pilots explained the benefits of NextGen data communications at Washington Dulles airport in September. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The multibillion-dollar program to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system is making progress, the president of the largest airline pilots union asserted on February 14, days after President Donald Trump in a meeting with airline and airport executives described the ATC system as obsolete and said the government is “using the wrong type of equipment” for the modernization.

Asked about the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program during a meeting with reporters, Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa) president Tim Canoll defended the effort. A Delta Air Lines captain and former Navy pilot, Canoll serves on the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), an industry-government group formed by advisory organization RTCA in 2010 to advise the FAA on the modernization.

“In today’s day and age we need to shift our thinking on NextGen as instead of [being] an event, it’s more a description of an evolutionary process for our air traffic system,” said Canoll. “I believe we have made progress in the current NextGen efforts. If you look at the increase in capability at our major airports due to NextGen initiatives, whether it be the metroplex redesign at some of our major airports, the implementation at a few of our major airports of recat [wake turbulence recategorization]—they’ve all increased capacity at the airports.”

Canoll also commended the program initiative to implement “performance-based” procedures, including precise required navigation performance (RNP) flight paths, to and from airports. “NextGen has worked to put a required navigation procedure or an RNP at the end of every runway in the United States, and it has greatly enhanced the ability for my members to fly a precision approach to a runway that previously didn’t have it,” he said. “It’s a complex process; it’s not something you can turn on overnight.”

Transcripts of the February 9 meeting of executives also quoted Trump as remarking that the FAA might be better managed by a pilot. Asked if he has confidence in the current administrator Michael Huerta, who is not a pilot, Canoll affirmed that he does. “Yes, I am very confident. I think he’s done a great job,” Canoll said. Huerta has demonstrated an ability to “navigate some very tricky and difficult issues” while maintaining the agency’s focus on safety. “They haven’t lost sight that safety is their first objective,” he added.

Following the White House meeting, the FAA issued a statement explaining that it has spent $7.5 billion in congressionally appropriated funds on NextGen over the past seven years, an effort that thus far has produced $2.7 billion in savings for airlines and passengers and is expected to generate $160 billion in benefits through 2030. But Rep. Bill Schuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has charged that despite the spending “significant benefits have yet to materialize.” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) echoed that sentiment on January 11 during the confirmation hearing for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao when he noted concern that the “benefits of NextGen have not been realized.”

Schuster is expected to revive legislation he introduced last year to create a new entity separate of the FAA to manage the ATC system.

Canoll said Alpa would be supportive of a new ATC organization as long as it is a non-profit entity that includes system operators—controllers and pilots—in its governance. The pilots’ union also contends that the organization should derive its funding from the users of the airspace system rather than federal appropriations, as is the case with the FAA.

“It needs to be constructed in a way that it will be able to provide long-term stable funding. Along those lines, the funding has to be done in a fair and equitable way, and our offer is that the most fair and equitable way to do it is to base the fee structure on usage. No one gets a free pass; everyone has to pay their part,” Canoll said.

The new entity must also maintain the current workplace rights and conditions negotiated by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, with which Alpa works closely, and other FAA employee unions, Canoll said. “Last and certainly not least, [with] any new non-governmental entity, we’re not going to be able to tolerate it diminishing or removing any of the currently enjoyed collective bargaining rights of the FAA employees today,” he said. “We don’t think this should be used as a tool to circumvent organized labor.”