FAA: Ready the Harpoon: NextGen Is Just Over the Horizon

For nearly a decade, the FAA has worked towards creation of the “NextGen” air traffic control system.  At times, the FAA has appeared to be making solid progress, while at others, it has seemed more like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale.  In 2012, the Congress stepped up pressure on the FAA to prioritize NextGen, and required the FAA to provide annual performance reports to document NextGen progress.

The FAA has just issued its 2014 report, and claims progress is being made in several areas.  In particular, the report claims that general aviation pilots are now able to take advantage of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system to get a wide array of traffic and weather information that the FAA says has cut accidents by 30 percent.  In addition, the report notes progress in implementation of Performance Based Navigation in 13 targeted metroplexes.  The FAA estimates that its Denver metroplex initiative alone will save operators almost $10 million annually in fuel costs.

While the report contains some interesting facts, the most notable feature is its “forward looking” tone.  Hiding behind the buzz words that one finds in almost any government report seems to be a realization that there is still a very long road ahead before the program will deliver on its promise of a 21st century air traffic control system.  For example, the report touts that the FAA is “on the cusp” of finishing programs that “underpin NextGen,” and that the work being done today is still nothing more than the “foundation” for true NextGen capabilities.

Given the long history of the issue, Congress can best be described as encouraged, but skeptical.  The House Appropriations Committee recently commented, in its 2015 FAA Budget Report, that:

As noted by stakeholders, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the OIG, the effort has often not met with expectations.  Problems with advancing NextGen have been linked to unrealistic plans, evolving requirements, and an agency culture that is resistant to new ways of doing business.

While the Committee approved the full amount of the FAA’s 2015 budget request for NextGen implementation, the panel also expects “the FAA to develop a plan that outlines specifically how it is addressing investment priorities with details on timeliness, milestones and resource requirements.”

As Winston Churchill might put it, we are not at the end of NextGen implementation, or even the beginning of the end, but just maybe, we are at the end of the beginning.

(Originally posted June 5, 2014)

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