July 19, 2013

Continued work on high-priority Next Generation (NextGen) aviation system modernization efforts could face further challenges, and possible delays, as a result of the uncertain fiscal environment that may require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make more difficult choices, members of a House aviation subcommittee learned at a July 17 hearing.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel both described the challenges that are expected as a result of mandatory federal budget cuts under the sequester in testimony before a hearing focusing on the progress of NextGen efforts, which was held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee.

“The sequester and future funding unpredictability requires the FAA to make sizeable budget cuts that affect our operations and our future,” Huerta said in written remarks. “Without a predictable funding source, our ability to confidently develop long-range plans is compromised.”

Scovel acknowledged that funding uncertainty jeopardizes both near- and long-term capital investments to build the NextGen system. Such unpredictability “forces us to make tradeoffs” between imperatives like continued maintenance of the existing systems and NextGen improvements, he said.

In response to the sequester-driven cuts, Huerta is working with stakeholders, including industry, to prioritize the timing of NextGen projects. He noted it would be better to focus on doing fewer things, and doing them well, versus the implementation of across-the-board cuts that have the practical effect of delaying everything.

In their discussion with the committee, the officials noted that FAA is also developing an integrated master-schedule to strengthen enterprise-level management, by showing how changes in programs’ schedules will impact the delivery of NextGen capabilities.

NextGen will replace the existing, radar-based air traffic control system with satellite technology, which provides more precise location data, increasing the efficiency of system use, among other benefits.

The FAA is projecting NextGen will reduce overall aviation system delays by 41 percent by 2020, which will provide an estimated $38 billion in cumulative benefits, including reductions in aircraft fuel use.

Specifically, Huerta stated: “I think we will be in a very different place where we will be handling more traffic much more efficiently with a higher level of safety and fuel efficiency. We have made significant progress toward a very significant change in how we have managed air traffic.”

Although Scovel acknowledged past concerns with NextGen, including program delays at the FAA, he noted that his office’s relationship with the agency today is quite good. “Generally, FAA is responsive and always gives us a very thoughtful effort in assessment of recommendations, and very often concurs with those,” Scovel added.

He stressed to the committee that NextGen is at a critical stage, and the program needs to see near-term operational benefits to encourage investment. He also noted sustained leadership will be key to driving NextGen programs forward.

It is time to “instill a new sense of urgency into NextGen,” Scovel told lawmakers.