Editor's Note

NextGen Troubled?

By Jonathan Ray | January 1, 2012
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FAA’s multibillion-dollar Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) has had its share of setbacks in the last few months. From the departure of the FAA’s top official to numerous government reports questioning the status of implementation, the news hasn’t been good.

Last month, Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned following an arrest for drunk driving, replaced by Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta. Babbitt had worked to convince the aviation community that the NextGen investment was worth it. Huerta, who was confirmed as deputy administrator in 2010, was tapped by Babbitt to be the head of the newly created NextGen office with FAA.

“Together, we are setting the strategic direction for NextGen and continuing to raise NextGen’s profile within the FAA and within the aviation community. While much of NextGen involves the air traffic control function, it also involves much more than that and needs the involvement and focus of every FAA office going forward,” Huerta told a House subcommittee in October.

But Babbitt’s departure was just the latest in a series of setbacks for NextGen. (Some mainstream media outlets have gone so far as to call the program “troubled” and “stalled.”)

In November, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Aviation Rulemaking Committee, formed in 2010 at the request of FAA to provide a user forum to define ADS-B implementation strategy, issued a set of recommendations. The report, in part, said, there is no business case for operators to equip for ADS-B In. The business case, of course, is a big sticking point for the industry, as it waits to see the tangible benefits of the system to justify the millions of dollars needed to equip their aircraft. “While many ADS-B In applications show significant promise, additional development and analysis is required before operators can justify investment or implementation decisions,” according to the report.

Another government report hit on another of the NextGen implementation hurdles –– global harmonization, particularly with our neighbors across the Atlantic. In a report issued in November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said FAA is not doing a sufficient job to articulate the work it is doing with Europe and its Single European Sky (SESAR) in terms of integrating the two airspace modernization projects. “FAA’s efforts toward interoperability generally mirror effective collaborative practices, but mitigating stakeholder skepticism about NextGen/SESAR benefits will nevertheless be a challenge,” according to the GAO.

All of this bad ink is on top of concern about the operation and viability of one of the foundational programs of NextGen En Route Modernization (ERAM), which will replace existing flight-data system hardware and software at 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers. ERAM system has been troubled by software problems at its initial operating site, Salt Lake City. The projected $2.1 billion program now faces a schedule slip of three to six years. GAO said delays in implementing ERAM are projected to increase costs by $330 million, as well as an estimated $7 million to $10 million per month in additional costs to continue maintaining the system that ERAM was meant to replace. Delays in ERAM cannot be understated, in my opinion, because so many other NextGen programs, including ADS-B, rely on ERAM to be up and running. ERAM is also pivotal to the on-time implementation of two other key NextGen programs — Data Communications and System Wide Information Management (SWIM). In part due to ERAM’s delay, FAA pushed the Data Communications program’s start date to February 2012; will revise the original SWIM-segment 1 cost and schedule plan; and delayed the SWIM-segment 2 start date from 2010 to December 2012.

Stakeholders I’ve come in contact with say it is essential that NextGen is implemented; it’s not hyperbolic to say the future of our nation depends on it.

These technological and program snafus do not even address the budgetary concerns rolling around on Capital Hill.

So is NextGen troubled? Perhaps. But that may be just semantics. Stakeholders I’ve come in contact with say it is essential that NextGen is implemented; it’s not hyperbolic to say the future of our nation depends on it. So as we turn the page on another calendar year, I would propose taking the NextGen lessons learned from 2011, roll up our sleeves, dig in and make NextGen a reality.

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