The FAA says that the current national airspace system won’t be able to handle the expected tripling of air traffic by 2025, and there’s generally no disagreement among stakeholders about the need for ATC modernization. But it is how we get there that is the big problem. In opening statements before a hearing Wednesday morning on ATC modernization, House Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., brought up the FAA’s poor track record of previous ATC modernization projects and promptly added that “vigorous congressional oversight” will be needed for NextGen. DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel testified that NextGen is a “high-risk effort” that will “involve billion-dollar investments by both the government and airspace users.” During questioning, he submitted that the FAA and Joint Planning Development Office (JPDO) need to have a detailed R&D plan developed before Congress can properly appropriate funding for ATC modernization.
Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, at the hearing also dubbed NextGen as “high risk” and expressed concern that the FAA will face a “leadership vacuum” during a critical point of modernization planning, citing Russell Chew’s recent departure as chief of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization and agency Administrator Marion Blakey’s pending exodus in late September when her term expires. Representing the general aviation community at the hearing, GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce took the FAA, JPDO and DOT to task because they have not yet clearly defined “the system they intend to build.” He also said a key issue of NextGen planning ? the aircraft equipage component — has largely been ignored. In this regard, Bunce suggested that Congress “incentivize” NextGen equipage in both commercial and general aviation aircraft so that operators don?t wait until the last minute to upgrade their avionics, as was the case with reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) implementation. The FAA and JPDO aren’t expected to release a detailed ATC modernization road map until late July, which puts into question how the FAA developed cost levels for NextGen in its FY 2008 funding request delivered to Congress in mid-February.