The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) implementation of the next generation air transportation system NextGen is among the top transportation management challenges for the federal 2014 fiscal year, according to a new report released Monday, Dec. 16.
Photo, courtesy of United.
The Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which issued the report, believes the FAA needs to address the following key challenges: identifying and addressing the underlying causes of cost increases and schedule delays; integrating new performance-based navigation (PBN) routes at the nation's busiest airports; and further developing and implementing consolidation and modernization plans. One such modernization effort is the agency's plan to consolidate existing terminal radar approach control facilities within the New York Enroute Air Traffic Control Center's airspace, which would combine the under-30,000-feet operations in the New York region with a 250,000-square-foot facility.
Many of these projects have been delayed or put on hold due to the FAA's reduced capital expenditures budget caused by sequestration. However, the OIG's report indicates that the agency's ability to provide near-term benefits, such as direct flights and fuel savings by implementing new PBN procedures is more of a management issue.
Preliminary data shows that Required Navigation Performance (RNP) use — techniques that allow aircraft to fly along a predefined route using onboard navigation systems — is high at small to medium-sized airports, such as Oakland, Calif., but overall RNP use is low, especially at busy airports such as those located in the New York area.
OIG claims there are several obstacles undermining FAA's efforts to increase the use of PBN procedures, including a lack of updated PBN policies and procedures for air traffic controllers and a flight procedure development process that is slow and arduous.
"Until FAA addresses these obstacles and clearly demonstrates the type and timing of expected benefits, airspace users will remain reluctant to equip with new avionics needed to advance new procedures and NextGen," the report states.
Long-term goals for NextGen are focused on increasing airspace capacity and reducing flight delays, two priorities that the report says depend on fully implementing the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program. ERAM is a $2.4 billion system that replaces hardware and software at air traffic control facilities to manage high-altitude traffic. Although the agency has made progress implementing ERAM over the last two years, increased costs incurred to fix problems and the impact of sequestration have delayed implementation.
Despite the issues listed in the report, the agency is making process with NextGen. The full ground infrastructure for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) will be in place in 2014, and currently ERAM is being used on a full or part-time basis at 17 air traffic facilities. By March 2014, the FAA plans to begin using an integrated master schedule for all of NextGen programs that will show the linkages and dependencies among different programs such as ERAM and TAMR (Terminal Automation Modernization Replacement) through 2015.
In a letter accompanying the report to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the OIG made it imperative that funding and prioritization are two of the top issues.
"The Department must set invent priorities and realistic plans for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) — a complex and costly effort that is vital to provide safer and more efficient air traffic management. This will require difficult trade-offs among diverse capital programs," said Calvin Scovel, inspector general for the OIG.