FAA's NextGen slowed by lack of leadership, poor coordination

Costly software glitches and disagreements over funding hinder system rollout, overseers say.

Poor interagency coordination and unclear leadership roles are hindering the Federal Aviation Administration's ability to address problems in its overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system, witnesses told lawmakers on Wednesday.

In a hearing before the House Transportation Aviation subcommittee, panelists said the success of NextGen, which replaces the current aviation system with more advanced technology, requires better management of projects various agencies conduct and the involvement of key stakeholders, such as air traffic controllers, in the program's development.

"The more productive these cooperative efforts are, the better service FAA can provide to the traveling public," said Karlin Toner, director of FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office, which is responsible for managing the transition to NextGen and coordinating efforts with NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation departments.

One concern is the lack of consistent leadership, witnesses told the subcommittee. The JPDO has its fourth director in seven years, and FAA only recently announced that the position of deputy administrator, when filled, will oversee NextGen's rollout.

Some progress is being made in partner agencies, panelists said. NASA's Airspace Systems Program has aligned its research and development efforts with NextGen priorities, and the Defense Department has requested $200 million in fiscal 2011 to fund NextGen capabilities. Uncertainties remain over which agencies will fund and conduct the research and development for some NextGen programs, however.

For example, FAA wants to tap into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 4D weather cube currently in development, which is a database that combines weather data from three spatial dimensions and time. About 70 percent of all flight delays are caused by weather. But officials have disagreed over what information should be made available, said Calvin Scovel, inspector general at the Transportation Department.

Witnesses and lawmakers agreed the lack of coordination among agencies and the limited effectiveness of oversight groups have slowed FAA in addressing serious problems in NextGen's short- and long-term deployment.

"Clearly there is a need that all of these plans and councils be synchronized," said Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office. "At this point, since things are so new, it is still to be determined if this is going to work."

Scovel said he is concerned about the $2.1 billion En-Route Automation Modernization system, which provides flight information to terminal control facilities and traffic management systems. It is experiencing software problems that cost FAA $14 million a month to fix. The technology, currently operating in Salt Lake City, has had radar processing failures, difficulties in passing traffic between controllers and problems assigning identifying information to specific aircraft. So far, FAA has been unable to properly diagnose and fix the problem, and the system is unlikely to be deployed nationwide by the end of the year as scheduled, he added.

ERAM is essential for future data communications, Scovel said, particularly the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast system, which relies on GPS to transmit a plane's location to towers on the ground and to other aircraft. "As dates slip, the ability for controllers to make the most effective use of data communications and ADS-B will also fall down the calendar," he said.

If these problems aren't addressed, aviation will shut down, said committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., adding the recent volcano eruption in Iceland should be a reminder of what could happen without clear guidance.