Air traffic technologies get boost from Senate appropriators

But lawmakers are concerned FAA is taking too long to deploy key NextGen programs and have asked the agency to submit a spending plan that includes milestones and deadlines.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to give the Federal Aviation Administration additional funds for key air traffic control technologies, but expressed concern about the agency's progress rolling out those systems.

In marking up the 2011 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, the panel on July 22 approved an increase in funding for several programs critical to the rollout of NextGen, FAA's ambitious plan to replace the existing radar-based air traffic control system with a satellite-based network by 2020.

The bill provides additional funds above President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget requests for two technology systems, including an extra $50 million to support En-Route Automation Modernization, which provides flight information to terminal control facilities and traffic management systems, and an additional $12 million for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, which uses GPS-based technology to transmit a plane's location to towers and to other aircraft.

The committee, however, expressed concern that FAA failed to fully take into account ERAM's complexity during the project's rollout. The system, which was tested in Seattle and Salt Lake City, has had radar failures, difficulties passing traffic between controllers and problems assigning information that identifies specific aircraft. FAA still is working to fix nearly 200 ERAM software errors before it resumes testing and has acknowledged the system is unlikely to be deployed nationwide by the end of the year as scheduled.

"Such delays not only increase the cost of developing software under the ERAM program, but also increase the FAA's operating costs," the committee wrote. "Until the FAA is able to rely on ERAM software for managing all of its high-altitude traffic, the agency will continue to pay for the use and maintenance of legacy software."

A House bill that passed on July 29 fully funds ERAM and ADS-B at $132 million and $176.1 million, respectively. Both budgets are below what the programs received in fiscal 2010.

Senate appropriators voted to decrease funding for activities related to developing technologies in areas such as trajectory-based operations and reducing weather impact so that they could distribute those funds to other programs because of delays. The bill directs the agency to submit within 60 days a spending plan for its projects, including milestones and deadlines.

The bill also requires FAA to develop an objective, data-based assessment to assign new air traffic controllers to facilities and to submit a plan for restructuring its controller testing and training practices within 60 days. The agency's current process doesn't predict controller performance, the committee concluded.

"The FAA has made significant progress toward NextGen in the first four years of funding," including the rollout of ADS-B and situational awareness tools at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, said spokesman Paul Takemoto. "These are in addition to numerous projects that advance the delivery of NextGen through the development of requirements, engineering analyses, risk assessment, and developmental testing and demonstrations."

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