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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Editor's Note: Furloughed

by Emily Feliz

Avionics Editor in 
Chief Emily Feliz
After a few tense days, and hours and hours of flight delays endured by passengers, air traffic controllers, furloughed by silly sequestration cuts, went back to work in late April, and again the skies are friendly with just the usual, every day delays. Controllers are back in the tower where they should be, and the system is operating as it always has.

However, the operation of the system is anything but smooth, which many in the industry rightly say illustrates the need for FAA’s NextGen airspace modernization initiative. But with sequestration slashing federal budgets, and with the sequester’s impacts being felt around the National Airspace System (NAS), what does the continued sequestration gridlock in Washington mean for NextGen? 2020 is looming, and NextGen implementation, already frustratingly slow, has taken another hit, with programs taking budget cuts and air traffic management projects being halted around the country.

Numerous industry groups, including Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), National Business Aviation Administration (NBAA) and Airlines 4 America (A4A), among others, were forecasting dire repercussions to NextGen in the lead up to sequestration. And now that the furloughs for the thousands of air traffic controllers have been lifted, those same groups are still predicting major lags in airspace modernization benefits to airspace users.

“It’s still unclear how sequestration cuts are going to impact NextGen. It’s certainly going to take a cut, but it’s unclear how severe as yet,” an AIA spokesperson told me. “What is certain, is that the longer sequestration cuts remain in place, the more they will impact NextGen funding and the more implementation of the system will be delayed.”

For some in the industry, myself included, sequestration as the latest blow to NextGen merely highlights the frustration operators are feeling about implementation.

“NextGen progress has been an issue with and without sequestration. Airlines have said all along we need to realize benefits from existing NextGen-equipped aircraft and that FAA needs to implement policy and procedural changes necessary to facilitate the transition to NextGen. The airlines are ready and have already made significant investments in NextGen that we want to see put to use for our customers, which has not been done to date,” A4A said in a statement to Avionics Magazine.

The fact is that NextGen implementation has faced delays long before the word “sequestration” became a part of the everyday industry lexicon. Sequestration and furloughs aren’t helping anything, of course, but they’re not the only factors pushing NextGen implementation further to the right on the timeline. And the impacts could be felt for years to come, and in airports around the country.

“We see a big impact on NextGen,” due to sequestration, Dale Wright, director of safety and technology at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) told me. “Everyone thought that once the controllers when back to work that everything was going to be okay.” However, the furloughs and sequester halted several key NextGen projects, including the redesign of the airspace around New York/New Jersey, which is a major source of commercial delays around the country.

Prime contractors are moving forward with their various NextGen programs, with long-term funding secured by Congress. But I have to wonder how long that will go on the longer sequestration continues.

Sequestration, and overall NextGen implementation, will certainly be a major topic of conversation at this year’s Avionics for NextGen conference to be held Sept. 17 in Atlantic City, N.J. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to visit www.avionicsfornextgen.com to see our impressive line-up of speakers and to register. The conference is an excellent opportunity for education and networking on this all-important modernization initiative.

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