The Federal Aviation Administration’s effort to modernize the national airspace system hasn’t moved fast enough, and now some in Congress are raising the prospect of pulling their support for the decadelong initiative and calling for a more fundamental restructuring of the agency.
During a hearing Tuesday, members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee expressed frustration with the progress made to date on the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System program, known as NextGen, and left the door open to major changes in the FAA’s funding bill, which expires at the end of the year.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said the lack of significant progress on NextGen during the last decade should lead lawmakers “to begin talking about significant restructuring of the FAA and potentially moving the air traffic control responsibilities out of government.” Despite progress on the technology front, many in Congress and industry have lost confidence in FAA’s ability to modernize, he said.
Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said after more than a decade and $5 billion in investment, NextGen hasn’t made a significant difference in Massachusetts, where testing is underway for surface operations at Logan International Airport. “I got to be honest … my support is significantly wavering,” Capuana said. “I don’t see much change for all the money and effort. Why should I continue to support throwing money at NextGen when I have yet to see enough bang for the buck?”
The challenge comes at a critical moment for the agency and the NextGen program. The FAA has been operating under a $63 billion funding bill originally passed in 2012. That funding is schedule to run out this year, with only five years to go before the 2020 deadline established by the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act that requires aircraft operators to install NextGen-compatible avionics on aircraft.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers the agency has been working on developing and deploying core infrastructure to support NextGen, and this year marks a significant turning point in the 20-year effort.
“The agency has been very focused on delivering the core infrastructure programs, such as the [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] program as well as the En Route Automation platform,” Huerta said. The ADSB program, which uses global positioning system data, was delivered on time and on budget, according to Huerta. The ERAM program was delayed but is recovering.
“Those create an important foundation,” Huerta said. “The technological infrastructure is now in place to begin transitioning away from a radar-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based network. We now have more satellite-based procedures in our skies than radar-based procedures.”
By the end of this month, FAA also plans to complete the upgrade of its En Route Automation Modernization. This system will accommodate the new technologies of NextGen. Huerta characterized it as “one of the largest automation changeovers in the history of the FAA” and said it would result in a more powerful air traffic system that can handle the challenges of the coming decades.
Huerta acknowledged “the skepticism that the industry and others in the system have had over many years,” but he pointed to the progress FAA has made working on industry’s priority areas including performance-based navigation, surface operations and the Data Communications program, which is running trials at two airports with plans for two more soon. The NextGen routes that are currently operational are showing signs of lower fuel costs, more predictable flights and fewer delays, he said.
After months of delays, the FAA last month issued its long-awaited framework of regulations for how it plans to integrate nonrecreational unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace. While lawmakers viewed the delays as a symptom of the agency’s larger modernization challenges, Huerta blamed the FAA’s limited authorities and budget for the time it has taken to grant exemptions and certify UAS operations.
Under the 2012 reauthorization bill, Congress gave FAA the authority to grant waivers to particular users of UAS systems. To date, the agency has received more than 450 applications for such waivers, but Huerta said the FAA’s authorities require it to process each application on an individual basis.
“The challenge that we have is that exemptions are granted to an individual or a company for a specific purpose. The agency has very limited ability to grant blanket exemptions to whole classes of users,” Huerta said. “And so what that means is that we have to evaluate each application on its own individual merits. Anything that we can do that would enable us to look at classes of operators that have substantially identical facts or very similar characteristics I think could be quite helpful.”
The lack of funding, however, has had an impact on the FAA’s UAS test sites and the ability of some U.S. manufacturers to get their UAS platforms tested and certified for flight.
“We have heard from many members of the unmanned aircraft community that since no funds were authorized for appropriation to the test sites, the test sites have turned to the testing itself as being the business model through which they support themselves,” Huerta said. “I’ve heard a story from [a small UAS manufacturer] of being charged a quarter of a million dollars for a week’s testing.”