10 years after inception, FAA’s NextGen program still comes up short

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Michael Huerta Calvin Scovel, III, Transportation Department inspector general (left), and Michael Huerta, administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, testify July 16 before the House Subcommittee on Aviation. (Photo: Colby Hochmuth)

Concerns were raised with the Federal Aviation Administration’s long-standing initiative to update the country’s air traffic control system Wednesday morning when Calvin Scovel, III, inspector general at the Transportation Department, and Michael Huerta, FAA administrator, testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

The need for progress on the NextGen program was undisputed, according to the July 16 testimony. However, execution strategy, timeline and ultimate goal of the transformation remained unclear throughout the hearing.

But these sentiments came as no news to the subcommittee members, who said they had heard this same conversation several times at previous committee hearings.

“I’ve been hearing about the NextGen program since I started in this committee,” said Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., senior member on the committee.

And Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, also noted the discussion sounded very similar to last year’s hearing.

The NextGen program started more than a decade ago, when Congress, the federal government and aviation industry stakeholders began working to transform the outdated air traffic control system. With 2025 as a deadline, the aim was to modernize the system to meet future traffic demands.

“The cost of not doing would exceed the costs of doing,” Huerta said.

Thus far, the NextGen program has reduced 2.3 million gallons of gas per year, cut greenhouse gases by 7,300 metric tons and resulted in an increase of eight to 12 planes departing per hour.

Critics, however, suggest the benefits do not yet outweigh the costs.

At its inception, the NextGen program had a $40 billion price tag and a 2025 deadline. But in 2010, the Transportation Department inspector general found the agency has made very little progress in shifting from planning to implementing or delivering services to airspace users, according to Scovel.

In the report, the Transportation IG made recommendations for FAA to implement a more performance-based plan in order to see more results. However, a sterner call for moving the needle came today from Scovel.

“I would urge the committee to hold FAA’s feet to the fire,” he said. “There needs to be a new sense of urgency to NextGen that has been lacking for the last decade.”

And the program is about to face further difficulties. The most recently proposed House appropriations bill would cut more than half a billion dollars from FAA’s budget.

“This forces us to make a tradeoff between maintaining the current infrastructure, and developing the NextGen program further,” Huerta said.

Slashing FAA’s budget would ultimately postpone benefits from the NextGen program. By 2021, the program could create 700,000 jobs, and 1.3 million jobs by 2035, according to Huerta. He also predicted the cuts will reduce economic output $40 billion by 2021.

Scovel reiterated the need for a scrupulous examination and supervision of the NextGen program moving forward.

“We are at a critical junction, and reset is required,” he said.

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