Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

NextGen Needs a Power-Up, Senators Say

Sen. Maria Cantwell

Cantwell. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators voiced frustration Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration is implementing the NextGen air traffic control modernization too slowly.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee, stressed at a hearing that NextGen has great potential — saving 1.6 billion gallons of fuel by 2020. But she said the FAA isn’t getting the job done quickly enough.

“Can’t we move faster in getting these performance-based navigation systems in place sooner,” she asked FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker, the agency’s chief NextGen officer, while the FAA and the aviation industry continue to work on the broad architecture of NextGen.

With Congress set to continue to invest $1 billion a year in NextGen, Cantwell said, it is “unacceptable for us to continue to spend resources and not make more progress” that the flying public can see and understand.

Sen. Cory Booker, D- N.J. also asked “Why can’t we move faster?”

Matthew Hampton, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits at the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, told Booker part of the problem was “an agency culture” at the FAA that was “resistant” to change.

Booker seemed taken aback after Whitaker said “People don’t realize that [NextGen] was designed as a 20-year endeavor. So if you look at our funding stream: 20 years, a $20 billion program, the first time we hit that funding level was 2009. So we’re actually not that far down the path as it was laid out….”

Booker said his region — with Newark Airport, Kennedy Airport, and LaGuardia Airport — had the nation’s most congestion and the most pollution from airplanes. “This is a serious crisis, in my opinion” and “so for you to say ‘a 20-year plan’ that’s all nice, but I’m really focused on how quickly can we create an environment of safety in the nation’s most busy air traffic area.”

Whitaker told the subcommittee that FAA “is well on track to having all the ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast] foundational technology concluded well before the 2020 mandate” for the aviation industry to be equipped with it.

“Both the FAA and industry must be held accountable if NextGen is to succeed,” he said. The FAA is doing its part and the airlines and general aviation flyers must do theirs, he added.

“Let me be very clear: the 2020 deadline is not going to change,” Whitaker said, urging the airlines to not wait to install the new technology.

He also said the FAA had just finished its Houston Metroplex project, using GPS technology “to untangle the congested airspace” in that part of Texas, which saves the airlines 3 million gallons of fuel a year and reduces carbon emissions by 31,000 metric tons. “That’s the equivalent of removing more than 6,000 cars from the streets of Houston,” he said.

But Hampton told the subcommittee FAA was still struggling to deliver on NextGen’s promise.

For example, a system called “ADS-B In is “considered a significant and beneficial game changer” but “it is uncertain when this capability can be implemented and at what cost.”

In a hearing that was filled with cryptic acronyms — ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization), RECAT (Re-Categorization of Separation Standards) and more — Cantwell spoke for those uninitiated in the jargon. “The public doesn’t understand all the acronyms and what it all means,” she said. The public just wants to see results.

After the hearing Cantwell told The Container, “Any time there’s a major technological changeover and lot of time and money [invested], you want to make sure things are on track. We obviously had a lot of examples where things aren’t, and in this case what we did in the FAA [reauthorization] bill was to say ‘get this [NextGen] task force and together and prioritize these things.’ I think that we’re going to have to keep the heat on that. I think we’re going to see in the next six months whether they’ve gotten that message.”

Cantwell explained, “If you’re putting all your eggs in this big basket in the En Route [ERAM] system, and yet the guy at the other end of the table” — an airline vice president for operations, for example — “says the most fuel-efficient thing” is a more efficient continuous descent procedure for landing at airports, then “why aren’t you prioritizing that instead?”

She added, “Saying ‘Hey, I’ve got 20 years to answer this’ is not a good answer.”

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