Inspector general critical of FAA NextGen effort

August 14, 2012

Airline operators are reluctant to spend dollars on further avionics upgrades and concerned about the potential for significant delays realizing the benefits of NextGen—particularly at the nation’s most congested airports. That is among the conclusions of an audit released Aug. 1 by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General that cited several challenges in keeping NextGen on track.

The OIG staff placed a premium on required navigation performance (RNP), pressuring the FAA to step up implementation of the high-precision approaches using the most sophisticated equipment in lieu of satellite-based area navigation (RNAV) approaches that GA aircraft, and many airlines, are equipped for. AOPA supports the FAA strategy of reserving RNP implementation for cases where it can enhance safety navigating around terrain or other unusual airspace features. The tighter tolerances offered by RNP require both specialized equipment and crew training, and deliver limited benefit over RNAV at airports situated on typical terrain.

The FAA, in its formal response, said RNP procedures will be deployed in highly congested “metroplex” areas, but “whether RNP is chosen as a solution depends on whether it will provide benefit to the overall operation of the Metroplex when all operational needs are considered. RNP does not work everywhere and will not be deployed everywhere in the near to mid-term.”

The FAA concurred with many of the specific recommendations in the OIG report, though not all. OIG auditors also took issue with the FAA’s decision to include less congested airports in its update efforts, rather than focusing primarily on areas with the highest traffic volume. The OIG audit found the FAA has been slow to staff key positions, and to finalize plans to implement the recommendations developed in 2009 by a task force of government and industry representatives.

“As a result, (airline) industry representatives have expressed concerns over FAA’s delayed execution of the task force recommendations and the (agency’s) ineffective communication on projects—which may ultimately make users reluctant to invest in NextGen equipage and advance NextGen at key locations,” the report states.

FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta, appearing at EAA AirVenture after the OIG report had been delivered to the FAA for consideration, said accelerating the progress of NextGen is a top priority.

“FAA officials told us that the (agency) plans to prioritize its metroplex work to ensure that both types of projects will be completed as planned. However, this will be challenging given the complex and large-scale nature of the metroplex initiative and the fact that FAA does not have an effective system for prioritizing the development and implementation of new instrument flight procedures,” the report states.