'NextGen' conversion hampered by FAA funding fights, report says

'NextGen' conversion hampered by FAA funding fights, report says
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The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) conversion to a satellite-based airplane navigation system has been hampered by uncertainty over the agency's funding in recent years, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office that was released on Tuesday. 

The watchdog agency said the FAA's planned to discard World War II-era radar technology that has been used to manage airplane traffic for generations has been slowed down by congressional squabbles about federal aviation funding when it comes up for renewal every couple of years. 

"According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), its ability to perform its mission has been affected by budget uncertainty resulting from the 2013 government shutdown, sequestration, 2011 authorization lapse, continuing resolutions, and multiple short-term reauthorizations," the watchdog agency said. 

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"Based on our review of FAA documentation, GAO was able to quantify some, but not all of these effects," the report continued. "For example, during the week of April 21–27, 2013, while furloughs were in effect, sequester-related air traffic controller furloughs delayed 7,099 flights, mostly in heavily congested air-traffic areas. Moreover, FAA implemented a hiring freeze at its air traffic controller training academy in response to sequestration and at the time of this review had fewer controllers than expected."  

The FAA has been planning for years to discard radar technology for a satellite-based flight navigation system known as NextGen. 

The agency says the new system will ease congestion in the airspace around busy U.S. airports by streamlining the arrivals and departures of flights. It also argues that navigating flights more efficiently will have environmental benefits because airplanes will use less gas and produce less smog.

The catch is that the NextGen system is expected to cost about $40 billion to complete and an original deadline of a 2020 nationwide implementation is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding is scheduled to expire in March 2016. 

The GAO said Tuesday that the NextGen conversion is not completely off track, but the agency said the switch could be flowing more smoothly without the funding hiccups.  

"Although current segments of FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) programs are generally on schedule, past budget uncertainty has delayed final investment decisions for certain NextGen program segments," the report said.

"According to FAA officials, while the additional incremental costs associated with budget uncertainty are difficult to determine, past budget uncertainty has delayed the benefits of NextGen, creating a lack of confidence among industry partners," the report continued.

"FAA addresses budget uncertainty using a variety of mechanisms," the report says. "For example, according to FAA officials, although the agency does not formally prepare contingency plans for all budget scenarios, it conducts informal budget modeling for various funding scenarios and discusses options with the Office of Management and Budget before making decisions on how to respond to budget uncertainty." 

Lawmakers who are pushing to privatize some functions of the nation's flight navigation system said the GAO study shows the need to separate air traffic control decisions from federal funding fights in Congress. 

“This GAO report further highlights the need for Congress to take a comprehensive look at reforming the FAA after decades of budget uncertainty and inability to meet its critical deadlines," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement.  

"It’s clear that we need to come together to find a new path forward that ensures that Americans can travel our skies safely and more efficiently, and that U.S. aviation is globally competitive well into the future,” he continued. 

Shuster has called for the creation of a new nongovernmental agency that would take over air traffic control from the FAA. 

The proposal has riled air traffic controller unions, who argue that lawmakers should focus on ending the uncertainty surrounding the FAA's funding and fixing the agency's employee shortfall. 

"Air traffic controller staffing has been a concern for many years, but it has now reached a crisis level," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said during a roundtable discussion on Tuesday about the FAA's air traffic controller staffing and training plans that was hosted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

"I’ve said it repeatedly over the past few years: the status quo is unacceptable," Rinaldi continued. "Controller staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, and the FAA has missed its hiring goals in each of the last five years. 

"With one third of our workforce eligible to retire, the FAA’s bureaucratic structure is failing us," the air traffic controller union chief concluded. "In fiscal year 2015, the FAA fell 24 percent below its staffing goals. If this situation continues unaddressed, we will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity, let alone expand and modernize the system."