WASHINGTON-As any of the thousands of air travelers who suffered through an Aug. 26 crash of the Federal Aviation Administration's flight plan IT network already knows, the nation's air transportation system is aging and failing. The crash grounded hundreds of flights at more than 40 airports.
The federal response is a massively complex, interagency program called NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System) approved by Congress five years ago. The plan is to reinvent the air transportation to handle the anticipated dramatic future increases in travel demand without compromising safety or the environment.
Unfortunately, despite of efforts of federal agencies including the FAA, NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and Homeland Security, the initiative is still basically on the planning boards.
"I really question whether the FAA has the capacity to handle a project of this magnitude," Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said at a Sept. 11 hearing of the House's Committee on Science and Technology. "We've spent a lot of time and billions of dollars on [NextGen] and very little to show for it."
NextGen envisions a major redesign of how America flies involving precision satellite navigation; digital, networked communications; and an integrated aviation weather system. NextGen also aims to improve ground infrastructure, aircraft technology and alternative fuels. The project is expected to reach to 2025 and cost between $69 billion and $76 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The actual cost, though, remains uncertain, according to Calvin L. Scovell, inspector general of the Department of Transportation. "Much work remains to set research agendas and priorities for a multiagency approach, establish requirements for software-intensive acquisitions, determine steps to deliver NextGen capabilities and develop realistic transition plans," Sovell told the House panel.
Recognizing the flagging details of the NextGen program, the House approved in December an FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 2881) that included strengthening the interagency NextGen planning and development effort and moving the NextGen research and development into new operational capabilities as soon as possible. The bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate.
One of the key provisions of the House FAA reauthorization bill is to elevate the status of the Joint Planning and Development Office, which was established to facilitate NextGen activities. The House plan is to have the JPDO report directly to the head of the FAA. Yet, as the bill sat in the Senate, the FAA engaged in its own reorganization. The agency added a senior vice president for NextGen and Operations Planning to the Air Traffic Organization.
The status of the NextGen JPDO was downgraded by the FAA in the restructuring. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., wasn't pleased.
"It was troubling to find out about the restructuring of the FAA's NextGen program from news accounts and not from the FAA itself," Gordon said. "And it was even more troubling to find out that the status of the NextGen Joint Planning and Development Office had been downgraded in the FAA restructuring ... a move directly counter to the intent of provisions of H.R. 2881."
Costello, a member of the Committee on Science and Technology and chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, also blasted the FAA's reshuffling of JPDO.
"We have done extensive work on the best way to move the NextGen process forward, and there is wide agreement within the aviation community that JPDO should report directly to the FAA administrator," Costello said. "More than anything, the director of JPDO must have the ability to aggressively marshal the various agencies involved to make NextGen a priority. Only then will we make the necessary progress to upgrade our aviation system, and this is the approach we have taken in H.R. 2881."
Victoria Cox, senior vice president for NextGen and Operations Planning, ignored the lawmakers' complaints and read a statement praising the progress of the NextGen program.
"Much progress has been made during the past year," Cox said. "We have moved to accelerate initiatives that yield benefits to stakeholders in the near and mid-term. We have also taken steps to ensure a more holistic approach to managing NextGen and related legacy programs."
Shortly before Gordon dropped the gavel on the final session of his committee for the 110th Congress, he warned, "The next president needs to make the NextGen initiative a national priority and ensure that it is given the resources, management attention and sense of urgency that it warrants."
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, said in a statement, "America's aviation system is vital to the continued health of our economy and our competitiveness in the wider world beyond our shores, as well as being important to our quality of life. We need to ensure that we do all that is necessary to maintain its health."
For the time being, though, the patient is still ailing.