Federal Aviation Administration officials faced tough questions from lawmakers on Thursday when they asked for a steep increase in the agency's budget to replace the nation's air traffic control system with more advanced technology, a project that has fallen behind schedule.
FAA has requested $1.14 billion for the NextGen program in fiscal 2011, a 32 percent increase from fiscal 2010. NextGen is an ambitious plan to replace the existing radar-based air traffic control system with a satellite-based network by 2020. The agency says the new system will help save lives and reduce air congestion. It estimates the cost of the program will be about $20 billion, which it began deploying in 2008.
"It takes a complex series of programs, a series of inter-related initiatives, not unlike a symphony, to make a full, robust NextGen," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development subcommittee. "Some of the complexities have proven to be bigger obstacles than forecasted."
Citing a lack of leadership and NextGen's complexity, subcommittee members said they were disappointed in FAA's progress in deploying numerous NextGen programs, including a system that provides flight information to terminal control facilities and traffic management systems. The En-Route Automation Modernization system is slated for completion in December, six months behind schedule.
"It's hard to see what the cumulative result of [NextGen] is yet because it is so complex and comprehensive," said Committee Chairman John Olver, D-Mass. "Early implementation efforts have been hampered by unclear roles. . . . Has there been any progress in defining [that]?"
Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer at FAA's Air Traffic Organization, said ERAM is fundamental to NextGen, which means it needs to be deployed correctly. The technology, currently operating in Salt Lake City, recently was taken offline to correct numerous software and interface problems. While following the program's rollout schedule is important, it won't drive the agency to deploy the system before it is deemed safe, he said.
Lawmakers also expressed concern that FAA hasn't provided estimates for how much it will cost to equip aircraft with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), a new data-based position-monitoring system designed to improve communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. Without the projections, panel members said they are unsure how much money will be needed to complete the project.
Babbitt said the equipment for the ADS-B can be inexpensively installed in aircraft, particularly when compared to the ground equipment needed for the current system. "Everybody equipped is everybody best served," he said. "If more aircraft are equipped, our entire system runs better.
He was reluctant to provide how much it would cost on a per-aircraft basis, but said the upgrade would be a multibillion-dollar effort.
Krakowski said the agency wants to avoid spending money updating systems only to have to replace them when NextGen technologies are ready.
FAA also has included cybersecurity provisions for NextGen programs in its budget request, said Victoria Cox, vice president for operations planning at FAA's ATO. She added ADS-B carries its own security architecture. In addition, the agency is working with the Defense and Homeland Security departments to coordinate security measures when common programs interface.
"I look at ADS-B and NextGen technologies as enablers to do things we can't do with the current system," Krakowski said. He added the agency doesn't know what the outcome will be for NextGen.
The House voted on Wednesday to extend the agency's funding until July 3, 2010. The Senate continued debate on its version of the FAA reauthorization bill on Thursday.
"It is difficult to make long-term decisions on short-term information," Babbitt said, adding a multiyear authorization would help the agency clarify its spending priorities.