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Senator Thune Grills FAA on NextGen Program

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faced tough questions from Republican Senator John Thune, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Thune wrote a letter to the FAA outlining his concerns about the agency's NextGen program, which he believes is not being rolled out in a timely manner. NextGen was designed to update aircraft tracking in order to prevent mid-air collisions while providing economic benefits to the industry, but after its launch almost 10 years ago, it has already cost billions in funding and could take more than a decade to complete, according to some reports.

Thune Frustrated by FAA Lack of Progress 

Thumbnail image for iStock-479708008.jpgThune's letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, dated December 1, 2016, points out that NextGen includes a variety of technologies, standards and policies designed to improve current issues with air traffic control (ATC) safety and efficiency. Among the components listed in the letter:

· Upgrading physical infrastructure.

· Establishing new operating procedures for air traffic controllers.

· Modernizing FAA computer networks and software.

According to Thune's letter, Congress has given the FAA more than seven billion in funding, and although some progress has been made toward NextGen's goals, "reform efforts aimed at improving the government's ability to achieve ATC modernization have failed to achieve significant improvements, and full implementation of major programs remains a challenge."

Furthermore, Thune cites a report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in August 2016, which points out the FAA has not yet determined when the majority of its NextGen programs will actually deliver benefits, or if the FAA knows how the programs should look when they are completed.

NextGen Priority Capabilities 

NextGen's four highest priority capabilities are:

1. Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) procedures, using satellite guidance to improve flight paths;

2. Improvement of surface operations, including airport taxiway management;

3. Multiple runway operations, improving the safety of runways during low visibility; and

4. Data communications, allowing pilots and air traffic controllers to use digital text messages instead of voice communications.

The technology upgrades needed for NextGen to succeed, however, require multiple stakeholders to undertake actions at the same time. For example, for the FAA to implement PBN systems, airlines must install new equipment to prevent accidents and the FAA must deploy ground stations and train air traffic controllers on the new procedures. Unfortunately, as Thune points out, the FAA has not made enough progress to advance on many of NextGen's priorities. Regarding PBN, although almost 70 percent of aircraft owned by major airlines now have the necessary equipment to implement PBN, only two percent of flights that could have used the technology actually have. That's because, according to the OIG, not enough training has been provided to air traffic controllers in PBN procedures.

"In the November 2016...the OIG again underscored the difficulty the FAA has encountered in establishing long-term benchmarks for NextGen," Thune wrote. "The report highlighted how, despite the FAA's investment of over $3 billion in the six NextGen transformational programs since 2007, the total costs, schedules, and benefits for these programs remain uncertain."

In addition to enhancing the safety of air travel, NextGen is projected to provide $11.4 billion in economic benefits over the next 15 years.

Due to the lack of progress on NextGen and the increase in costs cited by Thune and the FAA, Thune requested the FAA respond to twelve questions by December 15, 2016. Included in the request, the FAA is required to provide a timeline for expected implementation of NextGen programs, a summary of new policies implemented to address the Government Accountability Office's concerns, and actions taken to fulfill the OIG's recommendations for acquisition of NextGen programs.

"If key aspects of full NextGen implementation will not emerge for another decade or more, it is difficult to see how airlines, taxpayers, or the flying public will ever break even, much less realize the benefits to the U.S. economy that Next Gen has promised," Thune wrote.

FAA Touts NextGen Benefits 

NextGen, short for Next Generation Air Transportation System, is touted by the FAA as a "comprehensive suite of state-of-the-art technologies and procedures," that improves airspace safety and efficiency while decreasing the environmental impact of air travel. According to the FAA's website, the goal is to have aircraft equipped with proper avionics technology by January 1, 2020. Meanwhile, Performance Based Navigation (PBN) is in use by some airlines, such as JetBlue, which has reported benefits to using the satellite-based navigation system.

Citizens Complain About NextGen 

Senator Thune isn't the only person with concerns about NextGen. Some citizens who live along flight paths say NextGen has increased noise pollution by making flight paths more direct and allowing planes to fly closer together. In Phoenix noise complaints jumped from 221 in all of 2013 to more than 3,300 in four months.

In a speech to the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) in October 2016, Huerta conceded the FAA has received complaints about noise linked to the PBN rollout, which the FAA said in September would take about 15 years.

"While more precise navigation paths have an effect of shrinking the noise footprint of aircraft...it does in many instances concentrate the noise over a smaller geographic area directly beneath those flight paths," Huerta said. "As a result, we've gotten a few calls and letters, we've seen an increasing level of public debate, of political interest and litigation as it relates to the deployment of these procedures."

The FAA has said it will respond to Senator Thune's requests in a timely manner.

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