Planning and execution failures threaten FAA's NextGen program

Early cost overruns and delays have led the agency to ramp up communication between vendors and end users and tighten deadlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration is doing a better job of developing a series of projects to modernize the nation's air traffic system, some portions of which have run years past deadline and as much as $500 million over budget, government watchdogs testified Wednesday.

FAA's Next Generation or NextGen program remains threatened, however, both by planning and implementation failures and by possible FAA funding cuts, agency executives and government auditors told a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aviation panel.

NextGen aims to revolutionize air travel by 2025 by replacing a decades-old ground-based radar tracking system with a more efficient satellite-based system and by developing a method to transfer flight information through data packages rather than through lengthy radio conversations.

A May study by the Deloitte consulting firm estimated about $280 billion in benefits to the U.S. economy if the NextGen program is completed on time.

The satellite tracking system will save time, money and fuel, according to background information compiled by committee staff.

Radar-based air traffic systems require planes to run on a limited number of approved airways, similar to highways, so FAA can better guard against collisions. Those routes often require planes to travel extra distances and burn more fuel, such as on the approach to Washington's Reagan National Airport where planes must fly at a high altitude until just before they reach the airport and then descend rapidly, witnesses said.

Some critical elements of the NextGen program were delayed by poor planning, overly long deadlines. and inadequate communication between vendors developing the systems and air traffic controllers who will implement it, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel III testified.

Most notably, full implementation of FAA's $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization program, a system for processing flight data that must be completed before other elements of the system can be developed, could be delayed up to six years with cost overruns up to $500 million, he said.

ERAM was a "learning experience" for FAA and led the agency to institute new best practices, Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta told committee members. Those include ensuring early communication between contractors building a tool and the air traffic controllers who will use it and chunking major projects into shorter time frames.

FAA should be able to meet current deadlines for NextGen projects provided it receives funding levels similar to what's in President Obama's proposed fiscal 2012 budget, Huerta said. The president also earmarked an additional $1 billion for FAA NextGen programs in his 2011 American Jobs Act.

Congressional proposals to trim FAA funding by 5 percent would delay NextGen implementation, Huerta said, though he didn't give examples of programs that might be delayed or cut, saying he would have to consult with industry about which programs are most vital.

FAA funding has been hotly disputed this Congress, resulting in a gap in the agency's operations in July and August.

Industry panelists, including Airline Pilots' Association President Lee Moak, came out strongly against a proposed $100 per flight fee for corporate jets that Obama included in his jobs act to boost revenue, calling it a "hidden tax" and a "job killer."

Moak and other industry panelists also vehemently opposed LightSquared's proposed network of cell towers, which the GPS industry says will disrupt service for some high-precision receivers. GPS underpins most of the NextGen program.