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4/22/2010
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FAA Air Traffic Control Plan At Risk

Poor leadership and funding make it unlikely modernization of the air traffic control system will meet its 2025 deadline, officials told Congress.

An ambitious project to build a next-generation air traffic control system has run into a snag due to poor leadership, limited funding, and other challenges that make it unlikely to be completed on schedule, a panel of witnesses told a House subcommittee this week.

NextGen is a plan to overhaul the stressed and outdated air-traffic control system in the United States by 2025.

In addition to challenges the Federal Aviation Administration faces in meeting that deadline, the agency's handling of the project calls into question its ability to manage it, witnesses told the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's aviation subcommittee Wednesday.

The witnesses included representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Government Accountability Office, and the FAA itself.

Though there are mechanisms in place to help the FAA coordinate with the host of agencies it's working with on the project, there is still a lack of coordination between them, according to testimony. Among partner agencies on NextGen include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and NASA.

Employee turnover and organizational changes at various agencies have led to this lack of coordination, but the FAA hasn't helped matters either, witnesses said.

For instance, the difference in each agency's mission when it comes to NextGen is hindering work on the project, but the FAA has not done its sufficient part to define each partner agency's role, according to testimony.

In particular, the DHS's efforts to secure the border have limited its participation in NextGen and made it a low priority for the agency. To improve coordination on the project, the FAA needs to better define each agency's role and how it is expected to carry out that role in specific NextGen planning documents, according to testimony.

Lack of staffing and funds also is keeping the project behind schedule, witnesses said. Some partner agencies have allocated little or no funding specifically to NextGen because they have limited resources and other budgetary priorities.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is currently working with the Office of Management and Budget to improve the budgetary situation by agency, according to testimony.

The NextGen plan encompasses a range of projects to rebuild air traffic management and communications, navigations, and surveillance.

Among other things, the plan calls for transitioning from a ground-based radar system to an automated, aircraft-centric satellite surveillance system and developing more direct and efficient routes through the airspace.

NextGen also will improve aviation weather systems; develop data communications capabilities between aircraft and the ground to reduce controller and pilot workload per aircraft; and create shared and distributed IT architectures.

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