Problems dogging new high-tech air traffic system

Sep 12, 2012

A high-tech overhaul to the nation's air traffic control system is mostly on track to completion, but has yet to produce the benefits that airlines and passengers were told to expect, federal investigators said.

Progress in moving from preparation to execution has been slow as the replaces its -era with a GPS-based system, inspector general Calvin Scovel told a House subcommittee Wednesday.Lacking return on their investment, airlines are reluctant to continue making the multibillion-dollar equipment upgrades needed for the new system to work.

After years of delays and cost overruns, the FAA has improved its handling of the modernization program, known as NextGen, Scovel said, and the investment will be worth the taxpayer cost in the long run.

But the agency still hasn't established its overall costs or timeline and major persist. Plus, completion of a program to better coordinate areas near big cities with multiple airports has been pushed back 15 months. Eight cities, including New York, have been dropped from the program.

Further delays are certain if Congress doesn't act to avert automatic budget cuts set to go into effect Jan. 2.

Deputy John Porcari and the FAA said they've learned from the mistakes that plagued the program early on and are now working closely with the to ensure they deliver as many near-term benefits as possible without losing focus on the long-term goal: getting the U.S. ready for an increase in air travel, which is expected to nearly double over the next two decades.

By 2020, the new system is expected to reduce delays by 38 percent compared with the current system; airlines, passengers and taxpayers are estimated to save $24 billion.

The FAA plans to spend $2.4 billion over the next five years on a collection of six programs that the agency says will revolutionize air travel by moving from an outdated, radar-based system to one that uses satellite technology for precision tracking.

The aim is to move planes faster and more efficiently by making routes more direct, eliminating many weather delays and enabling planes to fly safely at closer distances. Once fully in place, the modernization program will save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million metric tons, the agency says.

But here's the rub: Planes must be equipped with new technology, such as navigational equipment, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per aircraft. NextGen, however, doesn't start yielding full benefits until a critical mass of planes have the new technology, so nobody wants to go first.

A program to use government resources to help finance the cost of new technology was included in an FAA funding bill signed into law in February. But Congress hasn't appropriated any money for that program, the Government Accountability Office says.

Most of the previous scrutiny of the modernization effort has focused on ERAM, the main computer system controllers will use to identify and track aircraft, except right before takeoff and landing. After a four-year delay and a cost overrun of $330 million, the computer system is up and running in nine cities and on track to be used in all sites by 2014.

"I think we have turned the corner on that program," said the FAA's acting administrator, Michael Huerta. "I certainly wish we would have never gotten ourselves into that situation."

But software glitches persist, including some that send data to the wrong aircraft. Those issues have had a domino effect, throwing off implementation of other NextGen elements that depend on the computer system and eating up FAA dollars intended for other functions.

In addition, the FAA hasn't updated essential policies needed for a smooth transition, investigators said.

For example, the handbook for air traffic controllers hasn't been revised with the phrases that controllers should use to coordinate between the new and old systems. Training programs that the air traffic controllers association said should include hands-on simulations have recently been limited to briefings from officials.

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said there had been a "lack of leadership" and he decried what he said was a stalemate as FAA failed to put in place some aspects of the new technology.

"It is not acceptable, period," said Mica, R-Fla.

Lawmakers also questioned how the program will stomach across-the-board budget cuts that will go into effect on Jan. 2, barring congressional action. Porcari said the effects would be drastic and would slow down NextGen, but he pledged that safety would be protected.

He said a report to Congress this week would lay out specific impacts of the cuts.

A political squabble involving the FAA's leadership also has hamstrung the overhaul.

The FAA hasn't had a full-fledged administrator since December, when Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned after a drunken driving arrest. President Barack Obama nominated Huerta, who had been in charge of NextGen, to replace him. But Huerta's nomination has been held up in the Senate. Although Huerta is running the FAA in an acting capacity, his old job can't be filled until he's confirmed.

"He has two day jobs right now," Porcari said.

Huerta chimed in later: "I would love to have a deputy."

Industry groups, including the air traffic controllers group, the National Business Aviation Association and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told the subcommittee that they believe in the program and its importance for the future of U.S. air travel.

The CEO of low-cost air carrier JetBlue Airways, Dave Barger, said new GPS technology is being installed on 35 of his airline's jets and will be completed by the end of the year.

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More information: NextGen: www.faa.gov/nextgen

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