Congress Enraged by the FAA’s $40B White Elephant
Policy + Politics

Congress Enraged by the FAA’s $40B White Elephant

The Next Generation Air Transportation System – or NextGen, as it’s better known – is one of the biggest white elephants you probably never heard of.

Formally launched a decade ago by the Federal Aviation Administration, Next-Gen was designed as a complex interconnected array of new technologies that vowed to reduce flight delays and lower  fuel consumption and carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

Related: U.S. Flight Woes Linger After Chicago Air Traffic Center Fire

The estimated cost? That would be about $40 billion through 2025, which would be shared by the government and the airline industry – meaning higher taxpayer dollars and increased airline ticket fees.

The FAA has touted its highly troubled $40 billion NextGen as a solution to an increasingly congested air travel system – one that will serve a billion passengers annually by 2021. Unless the air traffic congestion problem is addressed, it could cost the U.S. economy $22 billion a year in lost economic activity by 2022.

The Government Accountability Office, the airline industry, lawmakers and other have complained for years that the massive project to replace the current radar-based air traffic control system was woefully behind schedule. On Tuesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on the status of NextGen. The verdict was that the proposed new system is a bust – stalled, broken and unlikely to materialize anytime soon.

Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-PA) complained the process was broken and that the FAA was moving at a snail’s pace. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) recalled that when he previously asked FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and his deputies about the project’s deadlines, he noted beads of sweat forming on their foreheads.

Related: The FAA’s $4.1B NextGen May Be a Flight Risk

And delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a D.C. Democrat, said that the highly ambitious effort to replace a 20th century radar-based system with a technologically efficient GPS-based system was for now far out of reach. She dismissed the 2020 date for partial implementation of NextGen as fiction, adding that the FAA is not about to see any significant changes in the existing system for the foreseeable future.

Shuster was so frustrated with the long-standing and costly delays that the committee didn’t bother to invite Huerta to testify yesterday, The Washington Post reported, although he will have a chance to defend his agency’s performance when he appears later to discuss alternative funding authorization for the FAA.

But an FAA aide on Wednesday took exception to the criticism of the agency’s performance, insisting, “We are already getting benefits from NextGen technologies and procedures, and have been in some cases for years.” The FAA website notes examples of progress being made in fuel savings, time savings, and reduced carbon emissions.

Other progress cited by the FAA: A satellite-based successor to radar using GPS technology to determine and share precise aircraft location information for properly equipped aircraft; collaborative air traffic management technologies; advances in digital data sharing tools; and advanced weather forecasting to help develop reliable flight plans.

Related: GOP Says Obama ‘Manufactured’ Air Traffic Crisis

“So the premise that NextGen has not yet been rolled out is completely false,” according to the aide.

However, lawmakers appear unimpressed by what little progress the FAA is claiming compared with the magnitude of the overall plan to transform the system. Moreover, while some airlines have begun to invest in some of the equipment the new system mandates, they have been reluctant to invest too heavily for fear the system will falter or may never be completed.

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