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Thursday, February 11, 2016

AIA CEO Asks Congress to Focus on Stable NextGen Funding

Juliet Van Wagenen

[Avionics Today 02-10-2016] The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) is imploring Congress not to lose sight of steady funding for investments in the NextGen program as they work through FAA reauthorization and potential structural changes to the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Bill Shuster introduced possible legislation earlier this month that outlines a major reorganization for the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, which would remove ATO from FAA’s control and establish it as a federally chartered corporation funded by user fees. With a possible restructure on the horizon, AIA President and CEO David F. Melcher is looking to ensure Congress will preserve funding for NextGen technologies and avoid the numerous setbacks reauthorization came up against in 2013.

Air traffic controllers at work in a tower. Photo: Nav Canada
Air traffic controllers at work in a tower. Photo: Nav Canada

“The government shut down [in 2013] affected FAA deeply and it took congressional action to divert funds from Airport Improvement Program (AIP) to keep the agency funded and maintain continuity of operation. Stability in the funding stream and the ability to make decisions based on changing priorities are very important for any entity that is managing a project as complex and as large as NextGen,” Melcher told Avionics Magazine.

Instability has a major impact on the implementation of programs such as air traffic automation, satellite-based navigation and surveillance capabilities, modern data link communications, and improved weather prediction, alongside routine upgrades to buildings, facilities and equipment.

“NextGen is a system of systems,” said Melcher. “The full benefit is realized when implementation is complete throughout the national airspace system — not just in a few places scattered around the country — and all new systems have been fully implemented. We have a lot of work to do in both these areas. For example, we have yet to fully implement PBN nationwide and we are just beginning to utilize Data Comm. Equipage is a big issue and we have yet to see the full benefits of combining ADS-B In and ADS-B Out.”

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Feb. 10 noted that should Congress choose to instate the new ATC corporation, it will face major issues with funding in moving from the current tax and general financing formula used to endow the FAA and other government agencies to a user fee-based system. For example, determining the user fee for General Aviation (GA) flights is difficult because non-commercial GA flights often use minimal ATC services, so it is challenging to track their use and determine a fixed fee. Another key issue to be considered is how the new organization would address economic and financial risks associated with unforeseen events. The report specifically mentions how NavCanada and NATS, the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) serving Canada and the U.K., dealt with downturns in air traffic and associated declines in revenue resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While a new funding structure and the transition period could introduce unstable funding to NextGen programs, it is important to note that the FAA has already operated with funding instability for years. A GAO report released in December 2015 concluded that past budget uncertainty from sequestration has affected FAA's operations and NextGen implementation, and has delayed final investment decisions for certain initiatives such as Segment 1, Phase 2 of the En Route Full Services of Data Communications (Data Comm).

“If you want to purchase a new home, you first take a look at your current income and expected and projected income. How could you make a decision if there was no way for you to know whether you would have steady income for the next year or two? This is what FAA has been going through year after year,” said Melcher.

AIA feels that unstable funding impacts every area of NextGen, and is calling for legislation that would provide a budgeting and funding process that gives long-term visibility, stability and predictability to ATC operations, capital funding, and the development and application of NextGen technologies. AIA is also asking Congress to ensure the FAA's ability to maintain its critical aircraft certification and safety oversight missions as well as to enhance its certification process and enable safe and timely integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Should Congress choose to implement ATC reform, AIA is asking that they introduce an effective governance structure and capital decision-making process that includes participation of key stakeholders, including equipment manufacturers and firms with air traffic management development and manufacturing expertise in NextGen technologies and systems. If introduced, AIA is also pleading Congress to devise a streamlined acquisition process that reduces the time from concept to implementation so that technology does not become obsolete before it is implemented.

“Typically, organizational changes take 5 to 10 years to establish and, in this case, the magnitude of the change is huge. The transition period is important and we need to allow sufficient time to adapt while maintaining the current pace of the ATM modernization,” said Melcher. The Feb. 10 GAO report confirmed that a major transition is likely to take 5 to 7 years to complete.

“We have the most complex system in the world that is unparalleled when it comes to safety. The ideal scenario [for the ATC system going forward] is one that does not adversely impact this amazingly safe and complex system. We have a lot at stake here and we should be very cautious and not inadvertently introduce undesirable consequences,” said Melcher.

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