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Air Traffic Control Tech Upgrades Face Turbulence in Congress

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-830, takes off from the south runaway at the Los Angeles International Airport.

A Lufthansa Boeing 747-830, takes off from the south runaway at the Los Angeles International Airport. // AP Photo

It's summer, and your flight is going to be delayed.

The annual travel crunch—in what is projected to be the busiest air-travel season on record—is upon us. And relief from what critics say is a second-rate air-traffic-control system—promised year after year after year—is nowhere in sight.

In fact, it's likely not to happen in full across the country until after 2020—the regulatory equivalent of being 17th in line for takeoff from JFK. And like passengers sitting on the tarmac, the Federal Aviation Administration's critics in Congress are getting restless.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been working for years on a $40 billion overhaul of air-traffic control, moving from a clunky radar-based system to one that uses cutting-edge GPS technology to reduce flight times, accidents, and fuel use. With the airline industry facing a record-breaking summer—the trade group Airlines for America has projected 222 million passengers on U.S. airlines between June and August—a more efficient system could mean fewer headaches for travellers and gobs of savings for airlines.

Funding delays and infrastructure problems held it back from an initial 2020 partial implementation date, and Congress and the industry are getting impatient. Some key lawmakers are even reviving calls to take the federal government out of the air-traffic-control business.

Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said the country is "losing its lead in the world" on aviation and there's a need for "something transformational."

The NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation) System is intended to be the game-changer: a vast suite of technology upgrades to the communications, navigation, and surveillance systems that currently regulate airplanes' flight paths. A large aspect of that is upgrading from a radar system that pings flights every 4-12 seconds to a satellite-based system that runs more or less in real time. That will let planes fly closer together—increasing potential volume—and on more direct routes.

For example, descents will move from a stairstep pattern, in which planes drop and then level off, to a smoother descent, which Ed Bolton, assistant administrator for NextGen at the FAA, compared to "sliding down a bannister." With that process in use at its Phoenix hub, American Airlines says it's saving more than $1 million a month in fuel costs.

But it's not moving as planned. After the government has spent some $6 billion on NextGen so far, Shuster said, "we have very little to show for it."

A blistering report released this month by the National Academies of Science said that the FAA has produced just "incremental changes" and the "original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today." Further, the report questioned whether airlines should even be motivated to spend money upgrading their own equipment to comply with the system, given the lack of meaningful progress.

The FAA knows that implementation hasn't been smooth, but the agency says the problem has been in organization and communication, not equipment.

Bolton told National Journal that early challenges have piled up, meaning the reforms in 2015 don't look like what was promised a decade ago. A new computer and backup system for air-traffic-control towers meant to be the "backbone" of the upgrades cost some $300 million more than expected and was slowed for several years. The En Route Automation Modernization was made fully operational only last month, but isn't going to show benefits until airlines are equipped to handle it.

Airlines were frustrated by a mandate to install satellite monitoring technology on more than 220,000 planes, a decision they say was made without consultation and required retooling.

As is the story across the government, the FAA says it has been underfunded. Rather than the expected $1 billion a year for NextGen, the typical appropriation has been just over $800 million (it was $857 million last year). The Obama administration requested $956 million for the program in fiscal 2016.

So, Bolton says, the FAA is changing its approach. Rather than laying all of the infrastructure across the country and then building on top of it, the agency is trying to roll out the low-hanging fruit at the country's biggest airports, partnering with airlines, airports, and pilots' groups to identify heavy-congestion areas and show real results there.

"One of the challenges is people who say, 'You spend all this money, what do you have?' People don't just want infrastructure, so we're working on deliverables," Bolton said.

"It's difficult to tell the story of all the infrastructure changes, so now we're trying to focus on the benefits," Bolton added. "Looking to 2030, our numbers are impressive, but people are interested in what happens to them at the airport, and companies are focused on what happens to them at the end of the quarter."

Keith Hagy, director of engineering and air safety for the Air Line Pilots Association, said the focus on operational upgrades has translated to noticeable improvements at crowded airports like those in Seattle and Phoenix.

"When we get together and rally the community, we're able to implement more, and then we see more benefits," Hagy said. "Once we start increasing capacity in and out of airports, we've got more flights, and that's going to help us grow in the market and become even more profitable."

But refocusing efforts now doesn't necessarily make up for frustrating early progress, said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America (A4A). Airlines have complained that the FAA did not consult with them early enough in the process to discuss what technology was feasible, leaving everyone scrambling when the agency announced its plans.

But the greater problem, Pinkerton said, was that reform was coming from an agency that's been restricted by tight budgets and burdened by government bureaucracy.

"I applaud the efforts to set out a plan and have some deliverables, but it's still moving the chairs around the Titanic deck," Pinkerton said. "They are imprisoned by a governance and a funding structure that's always going to work against their ability to make these changes."

A4A, which represents the nation's major airlines, has backed some reform of the air-traffic-control system, moving it towards a nonprofit commercial model that would free it from the government but not make it dependent on profits. The model, used in Canada and some European countries, has gained traction on the Hill and in the industry.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., last month introduced a bill that would privatize some parts of the air-traffic-control system, and it's among the options amid the FAA reauthorization effort. A Government Accountability Office survey of industry stakeholders found that a majority said FAA was only marginally or moderately capable of implementing NextGen without reforms.

Even the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has said he's open to the conversations.

"I'm willing to have those conversations and move forward on it as long a we find a stable, predictable funding stream," said Paul Rinaldi at an Aero Club event last month, although he said he'd fight a profit-driven model.

With the rebounding economy boosting the industry, Pinkerton said it's more important than ever that the FAA be refocused to ensure that NextGen is, at last, cleared for takeoff.

"We're growing and we want a system that's capable of helping us grow," Pinkerton said. "We've made investments, now we want to see benefits."

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