Hearing reveals FAA behind on NextGen, UAS, consolidation

February 6, 2014

Two years after the FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed, the FAA is far behind schedule on achieving most of its approximately 200 provisions, including implementing NextGen technologies, integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into existing airspace, and consolidating FAA facilities, according to testimony delivered to the House aviation subcommittee on Feb. 5.

The hearing, which was led by subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey), is part of early efforts to set the stage for the next FAA reauthorization by determining how well FAA has implemented the mandates associated with its last reauthorization, which expires Sept. 30, 2015.

“The FAA needs to demonstrate benefits, such as through the use of ADS-B technology or the implementation of performance-based GPS approaches, two areas in which the FAA is lacking according to the GAO (Government Accountability Office) and IG (inspector general),” said LoBiondo. “Taxpayers and airspace users have invested a lot of money in NextGen, but considering repeated program delays and cost overruns, as well as our ongoing budget constraints, we need to hold the FAA accountable for implementing NextGen.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, warned, “The aviation industry was invented in America, and we continue to be the world leader in the airline industry and in aviation manufacturing. But if we’re not careful and proactive, we could lose our position as the global leader in aviation, just as we’ve fallen behind in other important industries.”

Testifying before the subcommittee were FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel III, and Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office.

Members of the subcommittee raised the question of NextGen spending to date by FAA. The panel acknowledged that about $5 to $6 billion has already been spent to build the foundation for NextGen.

During the hearing, Scovel reported that the FAA is unlikely to meet its 2020 deadline for implementing the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) program, which is fundamental to NextGen modernization. Among the problems are the still-evolving standards for ADS-B In, which will allow aircraft to receive ADS-B traffic and other data in the cockpit. Without standards in place, the costs and benefits are unknown and aircraft owners are unable and unwilling to equip.

“FAA lacks well-defined policy, equipment standards, certification and operational approval guidance, procedures, and ground automation—all prerequisites for a successful rulemaking effort,” Scovel told the subcommittee. “As a result, FAA will not be in position to mandate ADS-B In for several years.”

AOPA has long argued that aircraft operators will voluntarily equip for NextGen if they can see tangible benefits for their investment. For many general aviation operators those benefits will come primarily from the additional safety and situational awareness data available through ADS-B In.

Problems and delays associated with integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System were another focus of the hearing. While the FAA recently released its five-year roadmap for unmanned aircraft and has identified six test sites, the agency has said it will not be able to meet Congress’ September 2015 deadline for safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the airspace system and has not committed to an alternative implementation timeline.

“As a result it remains unclear when FAA will complete UAS integration,” Scovel told the subcommittee.

Dillingham painted a similar picture, noting that the FAA has not yet issued a notice of proposed rulemaking for unmanned aircraft integration and that, although it has created a UAS Integration Office to lead those efforts, the office has no operations budget.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 also called on the agency to realign and consolidate its facilities to meet future needs, but that effort, too, has run into challenges. In his testimony, Huerta noted that, while the original intent was to present Congress with a comprehensive recommendation encompassing all facilities, after working with unionized employees the agency has changed its approach and is now looking at a multi-step process for examining one segment of its facilities at a time. Terminal facilities will be the first to be examined and the FAA hopes to have an initial recommendation to Congress early in 2015.

Other issues around aligning personnel with goals were raised Scovel’s testimony, which noted that FAA does not have an effective model for determining the number of inspectors it needs and where to place them. Further, the agency has not developed metrics to determine whether its new controller scheduling policies will reduce controller fatigue,” Scovel told the subcommittee.

Elizabeth Tennyson

Elizabeth A Tennyson | Director of Government Affairs and Executive Communications, AOPA

Director of Government Affairs and Executive Communications Elizabeth Tennyson joined AOPA in 1998, the same year she earned her private pilot certificate. She also holds an instrument rating and enjoys jumping out of planes almost as much as flying them.