Although originally billed as a Senate hearing on FAA Reauthorization, because another continuing resolution was passed last week, the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security switched the focus of the hearing from Reauthorization to NextGen and "the Benefits of Modernization." 

Essentially, this hearing was a scaled-down version of the hearing that the House held last week.  (See, "U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation Holds Hearing on FAA’s NextGen and ATC Modernization Efforts,"  posted March 22, 2009). Indeed, the written testimony of Dr. Dillingham is almost word for word identical to the written testimony presented to the House Subcommittee.  Likewise, the written testimony of Dale Wright, NATCA’s Director of Safety and Technology, was in most respects the same as Patrick Forrey’s last week.  As Sen. John D. Rockefeller, IV, Chairman of the full Committee stated in his opening statement, this hearing was a first step to "move the U.S. past Mongolia in the ranking of air traffic control systems."

It was also Sen. Rockefeller who summed up the problems the FAA has been having not only with respect to NextGen, but many other issues as well:  "[r]ivalries in the aviation community have hampered the industry’s ability to speak with one voice for far too long.  Without that one voice, you will fail."  The simmering labor disputes between the Air Traffic Controllers and the FAA; the mistrust between the Pilots and General Aviation; the airlines’ position with the FAA have all made it difficult for anything to be resolved, even if everyone agrees that some form of NextGen is an absolute necessity.

Thus, the hearing had Hank Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer of the Air Traffic Organization at the FAA, patting FAA on the back for getting ATC Modernization off of GAO’s "High Risk List," (see, "GAO Removes FAA Air Traffic Control Modernization Program From Its High Risk List," posted January 22, 2009) and generally touting how invested the FAA is in working with all stakeholders to achieve the goals.  In counterpoint, NATCA’s Wright, talked about the human cost of NextGen, and telling the Subcommittee that the "FAA  must collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders" pointing out that "to date [NATCA has] received no indication from the FAA that the Agency has any intention of meaningfully collaborating with NATCA."

Likewise, T.K. Kallenbach of Honeywell Aerospace lauded the environmental benefits of Continuous Descent, which is possible with the new NextGen technology.  Meanwhile United Airlines’ Joe Kolshak understandably lobbied hard for NextGen, since the airlines anticipate a huge drop in fuel costs, although the airlines might be looking for some assistance to get the required technology installed into the cockpits.  And finally, Dr. Dillingham once again told a Congressional panel that the "FAA faces challenges in resolving human capital," research and development, and facilities issues.

So, where does that leave us? Two "foundational" and "critical" hearings in which the same people are saying essentially the same thing that they (or their agencies/organizations) have been saying for at least the past two years.  With FAA Reauthorization stalled in the House (see "User Fees Issues Probably Will Force Short-Term Extension of FAA’s Authorization Instead of Full Reauthorization," posted March 16, 2009), and the Obama administrative set to present its proposal in Mid-April, it seems unlikely that anything will get rolling anytime soon.

A list of the witnesses and their written testimonies follows.


Continue Reading FAA Reauthorization, NextGen and ATC Modernization Are theTopics Discussed at U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Hearing

On March 18, 2009, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing entitled "Air Traffic Control Modernization and the Next Generation Air Transportation System:  Near-Term Achievable Goals."  The Subcommittee and the FAA are placing much of their hopes and dreams on the viability and success of NextGen and Air Traffic Control Modernization.  In opening comments, it seemed that if ATC Modernization and NextGen are fully implemented all of the current ills of the FAA will be resolved and world peace will be achieved:  safety will be improved, delays will be diminished, air traffic controllers will be able to handle more operations more quickly and more efficiently, pilots will be able to fly better, and, oh, it is good for the environment, too.  While, only being a tad sarcastic, it seems that many dreams have been placed on NexGen’s shoulders.

There can be no doubt that NextGen is needed.  All of the technical witnesses testified that ATC modernization and NextGen are absolutely critical to maintaining the U.S.’s airspace.  Captain Rory Kay, Executive Air Safety Chairman of ALPA, stated that:

NextGen has the potential to revolutionize the National Airspace System and our air transportation system . . . Forecasted increases in air traffic of two to three times today’s traffic cannot be met in today’s NAS.

So what are the problems?  First and foremost, it is a question of funding. As former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stated, in testimony as President and CEO of Aerospace Industries Association:

Much of what is needed for NextGen falls under the category of "new starts" which, as you well know, are prohibited under funding extensions. A large number of FAA NextGen pre-implementation issues – including development and acquisition decisions, have been adversely affected.

Now that FAA Reauthorization has been put on the back burner with the passage of yet another continuing resolution, do not look for these new NextGen projects to see the light of day any time soon.

Another issue is human resources.  NextGen represents a fundamental shift in the responsibilities and practices of pilots and air traffic controllers.  As Patrick Forrey, President of National Air Traffic Controllers Association, stated:

Under the proposed system, air traffic control would shift to what the FAA is euphemistically referring to as "Trajectory Management."  Essentially, air traffic controllers would discontinue active air traffic control and shift instead to air traffic monitoring and route management.  This could have serious implications for the safety of the NAS.

NATCA worries that "air traffic managers" would rely heavily on an automated system and not how to handle an emergency situation should the automated system go down.

For the airlines and general aviation, the problem with NextGen is the "equipage."  NextGen relies on up-to-date technology not only on the ground, but on the aircraft.  In the early 2000’s, for example, American Airlines retrofitted its fleet to install the Controller Pilot Data Link Communication system only to have FAA abandon its efforts in 2004.  Airlines probably will be reluctant to equip their fleets until the FAA is able to effectively address the legitimate concern that the technology is good investment.  And that is difficult to do when the funding for the programs to develop the technology is not in place and has not been in place for the past 2 years.

All this assumes that the FAA has in place the management infrastructure to effectively manage and implement NextGen.  Although the GAO pulled ATC Modernization off of its "High-Risk" list, NextGen, as soon as its implementation begins will land on the list.  The GAO has found that the JPDO and ATO have made progress in planning for and developing NextGen, but much is left to do.  As Calvin Scovel, the Department of Transportation Inspector General pointed out, the FAA needs to :

(1) establish[ ] priorities and Agency commitments with stakeholders and reflecting them in budget and plans; (2) manage[ ] NextGen initiatives as portfolios and establish[ ] clear lines of responsibility, authority, accountability; (3) acquire[ ] the necessary skill mix for managing and executing NextGen; and (4) examine[ ] what can reasonably be implemented in given time increments.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) stated that this was a "foundational" hearing on a topic of importance.  While Congress debates FAA Reauthorization, NextGen and ATC Modernization must move forward.

Lists of Hearing Witnesses and Links to their written testimonies can be found by clicking on the "Continue Reading" link.


Continue Reading U.S. House Subcommittee on Aviation Holds Hearing on FAA’s NextGen and ATC Modernization Efforts