Why the FAA’s $4.1B NextGen May Be a Flight Risk
Policy + Politics

Why the FAA’s $4.1B NextGen May Be a Flight Risk

After a fire at an air traffic control center in Chicago grounded thousands of flights last Friday and threw airports across the country into chaos, many experts raised questions about the FAA’s ability to respond to emergency situations.

The agency’s top chief addressed those concerns on Monday by touting the FAA’s multi-billion dollar project, the Next Generation Air Transportation System, otherwise known as NextGen. It will better equip airlines to manage similar emergency situations, he said.

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“With NextGen capabilities fully operational, we will be able to provide many more options for rapidly reconfiguring our facilities,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta told a conference in Chicago.

Federal auditors, however, aren’t so sure. They say the project, which is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and is years behind schedule, isn’t worth the trouble. “Ultimately, FAA determined that the total costs for the current ADS-B [NextGen] program, including funding that has been spent, now outweigh the projected benefits of the program by as much as $588 million,” according to the latest Inspector General report.

NextGen – or ADS-B, as it’s often called – will eventually shift the U.S. ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based system. The project in theory is supposed to cut costs by using GPS technology to save time, fuel and money, as well as curb traffic delays. Auditors, though, say any cost savings are unclear.  

The FAA estimates it will cost about $4.5 billion through 2035 – about $400 million more than original estimates. And, like other government estimates, the IG warns the price tag could climb even higher.

Many airlines aren’t equipping their planes with the required new technology, which tells pilots where they are in relation to other aircrafts, thus making it safer to fly closer together. Airlines are hesitant to invest given the uncertainty about the program; the spate of scathing federal audits aren’t helping.

Moreover, watchdogs have been warning of potential problems for years. In 2009 the FAA’s IG told Congress that the project’s costs, schedule and benefits were all “uncertain.” The IG described delays in approving new procedures and technology as well as pushback from the airlines, which have been hesitant to invest in the equipment. Then, in 2011, the Government Accountability Office released a report raising similar concerns about the project’s increasing costs and delays.

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Federal auditors are once again circling back to those concerns, this time with more data. “The inspector general’s findings raise significant questions about whether the system will be ready by 2020, adding to the aviation community’s confusion about when and how to equip,” Mark Baker, president of the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, told The National Journal.

Even if all the airlines got on board, there are plenty of other problems the NextGen system hasn’t addressed. For instance, FAA officials said the new system hadn’t considered the important issue of how to manage all the commercial drones expected to take to the skies in the next decade, according to The Guardian.

“We didn’t understand the magnitude to which [drones] would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly,” Ed Bolton, the Federal Aviation Administration’s assistant administrator for NextGen, told The Guardian.

This is problematic: The FAA has already installed the software needed for several of the project’s main systems. Making further changes to accommodate drones could prove difficult – and expensive.

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