Feds falling short of air traffic control overhaul, says report

Feds falling short of air traffic control overhaul, says report
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The Federal Aviation Administration’s long-planned conversion to a satellite-based national airplane navigation system is falling short of expectations, according to a report released on Friday. 

The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that has been used to manage airplane traffic and switch to a new satellite-based system called NextGen. 

The agency has struggled to meet deadlines and convince Congress to fully fund the new flight tracking program, so it has adopted a piecemeal approach to the installation of the new technology.

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The Washington, D.C.-based National Research Council said Friday that the incremental improvements have resulted in the FAA tinkering around the edges of the national air traffic control system instead of drastically altering it as promised. 

“NextGen, as the system is known, was designed to overhaul the U.S. air transportation system through procedural and technological improvements, including the use of newer technologies such as precision satellite navigation systems and a digital communications infrastructure, to increase capacity, reduce delays, and improve safety,” the group said in a statement about its findings.  

“Instead, NextGen today is a set of incremental changes that primarily emphasizes replacing aging equipment and systems,” the statement continued. “Although progress has provided some new capabilities and a foundation for further evolution, not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future." The report says the FAA should "realign stakeholder expectations by qualifying the early vision in a way that clearly articulates the new realities."

The FAA has said the NextGen 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 2020 deadline for implementing it nationwide is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding bill is scheduled to expire in September, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension later this year. 

Republican leaders in Congress have argued several policies not involving additional public funding could better manage the transition, citing examples such as private-nonprofit and public-private partnerships. 

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing to privatize at least some air traffic control functions that are currently performed by the agency.

FAA officials have touted the incremental improvements related to the NextGen as big advancements for the current system of airplane navigation.  

“The flying public scored a big win today with the completion of an air traffic system that will significantly improve air travel through every phase of flight,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a blog post on the Transportation Department’s website. He was referring to the completion of a new system for tracking planes that are mid-flight called the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system.  

“ERAM is a major step forward in our relentless efforts to develop and implement NextGen,” he continued. “With this new technology, passengers will be able to get to their destinations, faster, safer, and have a smoother ride — all while burning less fuel to get there.” 

The Research Council report, which the author’s said was congressionally-mandated, cast more doubt on the FAA’s ability to complete the NextGen at its current pace. 

“Many of the benefits of NextGen — such as increased automatic communication between aircraft and reduced delays to passengers — cannot be realized until its capabilities are deployed at sufficient scale,” the report says.  “This entails that carriers and aircraft owners equip their fleets with the requisite technology and incur training costs for both new equipment and new procedures.  

“Given the delay in implementing new procedures and technologies at major airports, airlines may not see benefits for some time, and it remains a challenge for FAA to incentivize the adoption of NextGen capabilities in the absence of clear benefits,” the report continued.

“Preceding any further equipment mandate, FAA should provide an estimation of costs and benefits that include mature technical specifications about the equipment and a committed timeline for implementation, so that industry can invest as needed given expected returns.”