Problems Plague FAA's NextGen Air Traffic Control Upgrade

Delays, cost overruns, and other problems threaten to push the multi-billion air traffic control upgrades off track.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

October 5, 2011

4 Min Read

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The Federal Aviation Administration continues to struggle with budgets, deadlines, and management of its multi-billion dollar upgrades to the nation's air traffic control systems, government officials and industry executives told Congress on Wednesday.

The long-term, multi-stage NextGen effort, which has been underway for several years and isn't slated to be complete until approximately 2025, aims to improve American aviation by upgrading numerous Cold War-era flight systems. But the effort has long suffered problems.

Within the last couple of years, the FAA has instituted a number of changes to improve NextGen's management, including working closely with an advisory group made up of users and other constituents, changing the NextGen program so that it directly reports to the FAA's deputy administrator, and centralized program management for the effort.

However, ongoing problems continue to threaten the program's costs and timeline and have kept private industry in the dark about the program's benefits and schedule, the officials and executives told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

As a result, according to Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a group that represents the interests of 53,000 pilots, and Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, manufacturers are building and delivering future-proofed planes and carriers are putting new processes in place but can't take advantage of all their capabilities because of delays in or improper management of NextGen.

For example, numerous carriers are ready to adopt procedures that they co-developed with the FAA to provide "smooth, fuel efficient, low emission descents that reduce [the need for] communications and enhance safety during good weather conditions" and others that help out in poor weather conditions, Bolen said. But the FAA doesn't even have plans or approval processes to permit planes to follow these procedures even as jet fuel costs continue to rise.

In another case, the En Route Automatic Modernization (ERAM) system, a computer system to provide communications and generate display data for air traffic controllers, is about 5 years behind schedule and as much as $500 million over budget, according to a study by Mitre Corp.

According to FAA Inspector General Calvin Scovel, early testing of ERAM revealed problems with safety management, and controllers had to rely on cumbersome workarounds to overcome those issues. That problem snowballed. "ERAM's problems are the direct result of poor program management," Scovel said. "There was over-optimism that ERAM could be deployed in a year, and FAA didn't begin to mitigate some risks until three years after problems began surfacing. This was a program that was hobbled out of the gate." Even with all those problems, and despite the significant program risks, the FAA still hasn't conducted an assessment of ERAM's dependencies or impacts on other program costs.

At a higher level, Scovel noted, the FAA has yet to develop an integrated master schedule to help manage NextGen, meaning that "programs are left with no clear end state."

The officials and executives pointed to a number of causes for the delays and cost overruns, including unstable requirements, poor program and contract management, the inability of the FAA to bring all constituents into the decision-making process, training, and a lack of communication.

Now, added to that list might be the fiscal environment. Amidst all the turbulence, Congress is considering slashing spending at the Federal Aviation Administration between 5% and 10%, which could further delay implementation of some pieces of NextGen.

"There's no question that reduced funding will cause delays, and that the delays will cost us more in the end in terms of lost benefits as well as increased costs of deployment," FAA deputy administrator Michael Huerta told legislators, adding that Congress should fund the FAA to the levels suggested by President Obama. "In the end, to be able to meet the timeline set out, the President's funding level is really what we need to get us there."

The government has already spent nearly $3 billion on NextGen, and the effort will likely cost into the tens of billions of dollars. By 2018, the FAA estimates that, thanks to NextGen, airlines will see a 35% improvement in delays and save more than a billion gallons of fuel. However, with continued problems and looming budget cuts, those numbers may be hard to reach.

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About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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