The 113th Congress has yet to adjourn, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., convened a hearing to start looking at the upcoming 2015 reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.
One component of that reauthorization, however, dominated the conversation — the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.
“Aviation. We invented it,” Shuster said. “We’ve been the leader in aviation for the last 80 years, but we are now starting to lose our edge. If we don’t do something now, we are going to continue to lose our lead in the world when it comes to aviation. On my watch, I don’t want that to happen, and I’m going to continue to work to be able to craft something.”
The FAA is currently in the process of rolling out NextGen; however, the planned overhaul of the nation’s air traffic and transportation system remains significantly behind schedule and over budget. The agency’s official target date is 2020. If put in place according to plan, the program would bring runway optimization, enhanced satellite-based communication and performance-based navigation to make routes more efficient, less costly, and safer for pilots and passengers.
“FAA is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar effort to improve the efficiency of the nation’s air traffic control system through NextGen,” FAA Inspector General Calvin Scovel said at the hearing. “FAA’s acquisition reforms have fallen short in improving the delivery of new technologies and new capabilities.”
With new technology as a focal point of the NextGen initiative, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the FAA needed to ensure that its procurement and acquisition processes can support the purchases it needs to make, and that it can enforce and justify the mandate it made for airlines to be equipped with the updated technology.
“[The FAA is] worse than the Pentagon on procurement,” DeFazio said.
According to Scovel, more than 220,000 aircraft are subject to the FAA’s mandate requiring they be equipped with ADS-B Out technology, which determines an aircraft’s position in real time based on satellite information.
“That will move up and down, but we believe that between now and 2020, those numbers will hold generally firm in that range,” Scovel said.
Although equipping planes with ADS-B technology means they can be monitored in real-time, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said the planes will still need to employ traditional radar monitoring systems due to the fact that the new systems can be turned off with the flip of a circuit.
“ADS-B shows a tremendous amount of value, but we have to have the necessary redundancy [for safety reasons],” Rinaldi said.
Despite the necessity for airlines and the FAA to invest in new technology to make NextGen a reality, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Ill., said finances weren’t the only issue at stake here.
“It seems to me that there are two different issues: One is the funding, one is the timing,” Esty said. “We need to find a way to get this done.”
With the number of benchmark items that need to be achieved by 2020, Scovel said it was “a tall order” to suggest that NextGen would be completed on time.
“What happens between now and then is anyone’s game,” Scovel said.
Although the conversation did center around NextGen, members and witnesses did mention the need to consider the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace, which the FAA is due to consider by the conclusion of 2015. However, the agency’s inspector general has reported that the agency is behind schedule.
Shuster, the committee chair, won re-election earlier this month in western Pennsylvania’s ninth district with nearly 64 percent of the vote. The Republican Steering Committee for the 114th Congress has recommended that he maintain the reign of the House Transportation Committee.
Although Shuster remained optimistic about the committee, the FAA and industry’s effort to improve the NextGen rollout, he said the funding issue was one that not even Congress could solve completely.
“The process doesn’t work as it should,” Shuster said. “The funding’s not there, and if you think Congress is going to be able to fix this, we’re not going to be able to, so we need to look at something different from the funding standpoint, and we have to do it together.”