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Monday, July 1, 2013

Symposium: NextGen Faces Public Perception, Funding Troubles Ahead

  by Woodrow Bellamy III

NextGen stakeholders face a tough task selling the $40 billion airspace modernization initiative to the traveling public and to leaders on Capitol Hill, according to panelists at an Airlines Pilots Association International (APLA) and the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association (NATCA) symposium in Washington last week.

FAA has set 2025 as the target date for full implementation, but many NextGen programs have already operational, making travel more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. For example, FAA has already installed 500 of the 700 planned Automated Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations needed to monitor thousands of aircraft by broadcasting their positions; the entire network will be completed by next year, and it forms the core of the NextGen system, which includes the En Route Modernization (ERAM) project—an air traffic control computer system that allows controllers to track airplanes at higher altitudes than they currently can.

But Paul Rinaldi, president of NATCA, said the industry is constantly being asked when NextGen is going to be implemented, which is tough to hear, because NextGen is already here.

“It’s the biggest transformation and the biggest program that the FAA and NATCA have taken on together. And it’s a wonderful success story. In 2009, we were not involved in developing and testing, and ERAM was not working. Today, we’re involved in every detail. Now it’s moving toward the East Coast. Nobody wants to talk about that being NextGen and that’s really frustrating because it’s the biggest transformation in the system we’ve seen in a long time,” said Rinaldi.

FAA oversees 200 air traffic control towers, and monitors 80,000 flights per day. Implementing the new system is complicated, because controllers have to maintain the current legacy system, while also implementing and practicing the upgraded protocols.

Added to that complication, is the government funding behind the FAA, which took a $637 million reduction to its 2013 operating budget because of sequestration, and is facing similar cuts annually over the next decade unless lawmakers revoke the sequester.

Rinaldi called sequestration a “kryptonite” to NextGen implementation. He compared the government’s progress on NextGen implementation to a freight train that was moving along steadily until March, when the sequester was imposed.

Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America (A4A), advocated for a change in the way the government views the aviation industry, with a national policy restructuring the aviation tax policy and providing a steady funding curve for NextGen. Calio said the United States needs to transform its commercial aviation industry, and provide the infrastructure necessary to remain the world leader, because airlines operating in foreign countries have big economic advantage over those in the United States.

Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Industry had similar views to Calio and other panelists, but reminded the symposium that the U.S. still has increased FAA funding steadily over the past 15 years. “Our system does have problems, no question about that. But we should not forget that over the past 15 years we have seen an almost unbroken line of funding increases for the FAA,” said Bolen.

Rep. Frank Lobiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, told the symposium he favors the aviation industry stakeholder listening sessions over congressional hearings as a way to ensure proper funding levels for NextGen.

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