Dems battle GOP over cuts to new FAA air traffic control system

Advocates for a Federal Aviation Administration plan to implement a satellite-based air traffic control system argued Wednesday against GOP cuts to the program.

The FAA has proposed implementing its new navigation system to replace World War II-era radar technology in control towers by 2014 at the busiest airports, at a cost of about $22 billion.

Backers of the navigation system argued the NextGen system should be evaluated by the benefits it produces when it is brought to fruition.

“The basic measure of smart business spending – return on investment – should be the same in government and industry,” Airline Pilots Association President Lee Moak said Wednesday.

“These are decisions that businessmen and women make in companies large and small every day,” Moak said. “It’s fundamental to long-term success.”

Lawmakers in the Republican-led House have already cut about $200 million this year from the FAA’s budget that would have gone to the conversion, and on Wednesday they raised questions about the development of the project.

“We cannot continue to rely on outdated technology if we are going to ensure our aviation system is as efficient and safe as possible,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) said in a hearing of the panel’s Aviation Subcommittee Tuesday. “Unfortunately, as pointed out by the Inspector General and others, the very foundation of our modernization program is experiencing significant problems.

“We need to get a better handle on this important program. It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of management,” Mica continued.

FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta said the long-term success of the NextGen proposal, which calls for airlines to spend about an additional $20 billion to upgrade their airplanes' computer systems, is dependent upon Congress’ support of the program.

“The willingness of operators and other stakeholders to make these investments depends critically on the business case for them – analyses of how valuable these benefits will be, and that they have confidence that the FAA can deliver the infrastructure in the time frames and manner required for those benefits to be realized,” Huerta said.

Democrats on the panel argued that cuts to the NextGen program’s budget now, when Republicans have criticized delays in its development, will only further push back its full implementation.

“Because many NextGen programs are dependent on one or more systems, delays in one program mean delays in others,” Rep. Jerry Costello said Wednesday. “My concern is: What happens when we add severe budget constraints on top of logistical program delays?”

Costello, a veteran member of the House transportation committee who announced his retirement Tuesday, said “simply providing more funding is not the entire solution to successful NextGen implementation.

“There are many factors that must come together in order for NextGen to be successful now and in the future,” he said. “But when we are trying to implement the largest and most important aviation modernization project of our time in a safe and cost-effective manner, at what point is ‘doing more with less’ just adding to the problem and making it even more difficult for it to succeed on time and on budget?”

The argument did not appear to fully convince Republicans on the panel Tuesday however, though most acknowledge it was worthy to try to upgrade the national aviation navigation system.

“How can we invest in something when a report of the [DOT Inspector General] says the FAA has not approved total cost, schedule or performances baseline for any of NextGen's transformal programs nor developed a...schedule for executing NextGen?” freshman Rep. Chris Cravaack (R-Minn.) asked.