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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Blakey: NextGen Could Face Sequestration Impacts

Woodrow Bellamy III

AIA President Marion Blakey
The automatic $1.2 trillion cut from U.S. government spending over the next 10 years scheduled for Jan. 2 could have a devastating impact on the full-scale implementation of NextGen, according to the chief of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

NextGen is the biggest aviation investment in U.S. history. The upgrades could nearly double the number of planes air traffic control centers can track simultaneously, which would enable the United States to keep with the volume of air traffic growth which is projected to double over the next 20 years.

“When it is fully implemented, it will be a major benefit to our economy and to our society and transportation system as a whole,” said former FAA Administrator and AIA President Marion Blakey.

However, unless Congress comes up with new federal deficit reduction plan this fall, NextGen implementation could slowdown tremendously, due to sequestration, Blakey said.

“It stands to when fully implemented save $40 billion per year, and that reflects of course the efficiencies in terms of fuel burn, in terms of the environment and in terms of the delays and the cost of delays, so it’s a big number and you do stand to recoup the investment therefore very quickly once you get it in place, but you don’t get those benefits until you get to a certain stage of deployment and with a certain number of users,” said Blakey.

The former FAA chief said NextGen implementation costs about $1 billion per year in government investment in order to achieve the FAA target of full scale NextGen implementation by 2025.

According to a report released by Econsult onbehalf of AIA in August, sequestration would sap FAA’s $15.9 billion operating budget by $1 billion per year over the next nine years — which would be a big blow to NextGen spending because that’s exactly how much it costs the government per year to implement the new system.

Air traffic control takes extensive training, as does every position that feeds into the management of the U.S. air transportation system. Aircraft flying in the NAS must be tracked 24 hours per day; this must occur even while the implementation of NextGen occurs. That means you have simultaneous testing and training of NextGen technology, while other controllers are engaged in maintaining the daily air travel in the United States.

En Route Modernization (ERAM) is already four years behind schedule and $330 million over budget according to U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III. ERAM will allow controllers to track 1,900 aircraft at one time — up from 1,100, right now — and process data from 64 radar sites across the nation, which is more than double the current number of 24 radar sites.

According to a letter from Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), sequestration could result in the closure of 246 airport controltowers and the loss of 1,500 air traffic controllers. That prediction did not take into account though, how many of these controllers are maintaining thecurrent system while others train and help to implement ERAM.

“The controllers do work on bringing a new system like ERAM into each of the centers, it takes a lot of time and effort to do the training and have people familiar with it and look at the specifics of how it will work,” said Blakey. “It could very well be that the decision of management would be to say ‘we’re going to have to hold up on this because we’ve just got the staff now to keep the planes flying safely, we don’t have the staff to do this added activity that brings in the new modernized system.’ Those are the decisions that management will have to make.”

On Wednesday, representatives from the airline industry and the air traffic controllers union testified before Congress about the progress of NextGen, requesting a more concrete timeline for NextGen implementation and the need for more cost benefit analysis to justify retrofitting existing and future aircraft with NextGen components.

Both members of Congress and the aviation industry leaders agreed at the hearing that NextGen implementation is crucial to the future of the air transportation system — and that sequestration must be avoided in order for this to occur.

If sequestration occurs, and FAA has to decide how to distribute the across-the-board cuts, that will not only slow down NextGen implementation; it will also prevent the private aviation industry from moving forward in keeping up their crucial investments for ascending into the NextGen system. These are all factors caused by the unclear nature of whether or not sequestration will occur — compounded by the reality that if it does occur, there is no telling what portion of NextGen investment spending will be eliminated.

“We are seeing companies who are having to conserve their capital, they’re having to take very conservative postures with what they are moving forward with, everything from training to technology development,” said Blakey. “Its going to be a continuum that will just accelerate if sequestration is allowed to take place.”

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