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

On March 10, 2009, the GAO made public its response to questions submitted for the record related to the February 11, 2009, hearing concerning  the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009.  At that hearing, Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, was asked a series of questions to which he replied that he would supply written responses at later date.  This document that GAO has now made public are those responses.

Most of the questions concerned NextGen, its implementation, and potential pitfalls that the GAO believes the FAA will encounter.

  1. How can the FAA provide incentives to get aircraft equipped to handle NextGen?
  2. Answer:  Through use of some combination of mandated deadlines, operational credits or equipment investment credits.  FAA has proposed a "best-equipped, best-served" program whereby FAA would offer those aircraft operators who choose to equip their aircraft as soon as possible with various operational benefits, such as preferred airspace, routings, or runway access.  Boeing has proposed a "reverse auction" in which federal investment tax credits would be combined with operational benefits.  This program, however would cost about $750 million annually over and above the cost of the implementation of NextGen.

  3. List of NextGen technology demonstration projects
  4. Answer:  See the next page for a table of the demonstration projects.

  5. Does the GAO distinguish between ATC Modernization and NextGen?
  6. Answer:  The ATC modernization program focused primarily on the acquisition of ATC systems. NextGen is a total transformation of the air transportation system, representing a paradigm shift from air traffic control to air traffic management. It is a shift from ground based radar control of aircraft to a satellite-based, aircraft-centric national airspace system.

  7. If Congress were to provide the level of funding outlined in the FAA’s preliminary estimate, approximately $1 billion more through 2012 than the most recent Capital Investment Plan, would it help to accelerate the development and deployment of NextGen?
  8. Yes, if Congress provided FAA with additional funding, that funding could be applied to a variety of projects and initiatives that would help to accelerate the development and deployment of NextGen.

  9. Would additional funding help to bridge the so-called "NASA Gap?"
  10. The NASA gap has increased in recent years from both the previous administration’s cuts to NASA’s aeronautics research funding and the expanded requirements of NextGen.

  11. Additional research, development and deployment that could be done with funding over and above FAA’s Capital Investment Plan funding levels?
  12. GAO found that avionics development and aircraft equipage are two areas that are critical and time sensitive for the implementation of NextGen and could be candidates for increased funding. In addition, additional funding for human factors to aid in the transition from "air traffic control" to "air traffic management" could be used to elucidate the new roles for all participants.


Continue Reading GAO Supplies Responses to Questions Posed at FAA Reauthorization Act Hearing

The U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has proposed H.R. 915, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009.  Since funding authorization for aviation programs and authorization for taxes and fees that provide revenue for the FAA expired at the end of fiscal year 2007 and revenue collections and FAA programs have been extended several times (until March 31, 2009), this bill is a priority item for the FAA. What follows is a summary of the provisions of the Reauthorization Bill.

Funding & Financing

  • Taxes on aviation users will be increased – Passenger flight segment tax increased to $3.60; International departure and arrival taxes increased to $16.10; Alaska Hawaii facilities tax increased to $8.00.
  • Provides historic funding levels for the FAA’s programs between 2009 and 2012, including $16.2 billion for AIP; $13.4 billion for Facilities and Equipment; $38.9 billion for operations; and $1.35 billion for Research, Engineering and Development.

Airports

  • Makes several modifications to the current AIP distribution formula that provide significant increases in AIP funding for smaller airports, which are particularly reliant on AIP for capital financing, as well as more AIP discretionary funding.
  • Increases Passenger Facility Charge from $4.50 to $7.00.  This provision was strongly supported by Jim Elwood, representing the American Association of Airport Executives.

ATC Modernization and NextGen

  • Provides $13.4 billion for the FAA’s Facilities and Equipment account.
  • Increases the authority and visibility of the Joint Planning and Development Office.
  • Requires the JPDO to develop a work plan that details, on a year-by-year basis, specific NextGen-related deliverables and milestones.
  • FAA wants to emphasize "infrastructure" improvements at the nations’ airports, which includes a full roll-out of NextGen.

Safety

  • Includes several safety provisions, such as authorizing additional funds for runway incursion reduction programs and the acquisition and installation of runway status lights.
  • Increases the number of aviation safety inspectors and requires safety inspections of foreign repair stations at least twice a year.
  • Directs FAA to commence a rulemaking to ensure that covered maintenance work on air carrier aircraft is performed by part 145 repair stations or part 121 air carriers.
  • Creates an independent Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office within the FAA charged with receiving safety complaints and information submitted by both FAA employees and employees of certificated entities.
  • Directs FAA to modify its “customer service initiative” to remove air carriers or other entities regulated by the FAA as “customers.”
  • Adds a two-year “post-service” cooling off period for FAA inspectors and requires principal maintenance inspectors to rotate between airline oversight offices every five years.

Small Communities

  • Increases the total amount authorized for Essential Air Services each year from $127 million to $200 million.
  • Requires 50% of over-flight fees collected in excess of $50 million be dedicated to EAS.
  • Authorizes the Secretary to enter into long-term EAS contracts that would provide more stability for participating air carriers.
  • Reduces local share of AIP projects from 10% to 5% for economically depressed communities.
  • Includes several provisions to mitigate the effects of increases in aviation fuel costs by increasing the existing $200 per passenger subsidy cap.
  • Extends the Small Community Air Service Development Program through fiscal year 2011, at the current authorized funding level of $35 million per year.

Consumer Protections

  • Includes several provisions to ensure passenger needs are met including a mandate that air carriers and airports submit emergency contingency plans and detail in their plans how they allow passengers to deplane following excessive delays.
  • DOT is required to publicize and maintain a hotline for consumer complaints, establish an Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, expand consumer complaints investigated, and require air carriers to report diverted and canceled flight information monthly.
  • DOT Inspector General is asked to report on the causes of air carrier flight delays and cancellations.

Environmental Provisions

  • Includes several provisions related to the environment, noise mitigation and land use initiatives, including:
    • An environmental mitigation pilot program;
    • The phasing out of noisy Stage II aircraft;
    • An aircraft departure queue management pilot program;
    • Broadened AIP eligibility to include several energy saving terminal projects; and
    • Requirements for the FAA to build sustainable air traffic control facilities.
  • Allows airport operators to reinvest the proceeds from the sale of land that an airport acquired for a noise compatibility purpose, but no longer needs for that purpose, giving priority, in descending order to:
    • Reinvestment in another noise compatibility project;
    • Environmentally-related project
    • Another otherwise-eligible AIP project;
    • Transfer to another public airport for a noise compatibility project; or
    • Payment to the Trust Fund.
  • Provides authorization for the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (“CLEEN”) Engine and Airframe Technology partnership to develop, mature and certify CLEEN engine and airframe technology for aircraft over the next 10 years.

Labor

  • Modifies the dispute resolution process for proposed changes to the FAA personnel management system, and replaces it with a new dispute resolution process.
  • Applies the new dispute resolution process to the ongoing dispute between NATCA and the FAA. That is the changes implemented by the FAA on and after July 10, 2005, would be null and void and the parties will be governed by their last mutual agreement.
  • Amends the Railway Labor Act to clarify that employees of an “express carrier” shall only be covered by the RLA if they are employed in a position that is eligible for certification under FAA’s rules and they are actually performing that type of work for the express carrier.
  • Requires an assessment of training programs for controllers and air traffic technicians.
  • Requires that FAA include employee unions as stakeholders in the development and planning for NextGen.
  • Requires the establishment of a Task Force on Air Traffic Control Facility Conditions to determine whether employees are exposed to dangerous environmental conditions in their work place.
  • Requires the Secretary to establish within the FAA a working group to develop criteria and make recommendations for the realignment and consolidation of services and facilities.

Aviation Insurance

  • Extends requirement until September 30, 2012, that the FAA provide U.S. airlines’ aviation insurance from the first dollar of loss at capped premium rates, after which the requirement becomes discretionary until September 30, 2019.
  • After December 31, 2019, such insurance must be provided instead by airline industry-sponsored risk-sharing arrangement approved by the Secretary.

Next Article: Summary of Comments regarding Safety Provisions.


Continue Reading U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Holds Hearings on FAA Reauthorization Bill

The U.S. Government Accountability Office today removed FAA air traffic control modernization program in its biennial update of its list of federal programs, policies, and operations that are at "high risk’ for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement or in need of broad-based transformation.  See, High Risk Series:  An Update, issued January 22, 2009.

On October 28, 2008, Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell rolled out the FAA’s 2009-20013 "Flight Plan" at a speech in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  The "Flight Plan," in which FAA sets goals for itself, is "the strategic plan for the agency, the plan to help [the agency] prepare for the future."  In the past year, for example, as Acting Administrator Sturgell pointed out, the FAA "reached 25 out of 29 goals," with the remaining goals "probably" being achieved by November 20, 2008.  In other words, the goals set in the Flight Plan are projects and issues that the FAA has good reason to believe it can achieve over the stated planning horizon.

Priority one, according to the Flight Plan, is "dealing with congestion and delays . . . both in the air and on the ground.  Toward that end, the FAA plans to "identify and address capacity-constrained airports and metropolitan areas."  The FAA has identified Atlanta, Chicago Midway, Fort Lauderdale, John Wayne Orange County (CA), Las Vegas, Long Beach, Oakland, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco as being "capacity constrained" and provided these airports with a "toolbox" which includes "technological, procedural, and infrastructure improvements to be considered for implementation at airports based on additional capacity needs in the future."

In addition, in FY 2009, the FAA plans to "increase aviation capacity and reduce congestion in the 7 metro areas and corridors that most affect total system delay."  Those areas are:  San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Charlotte, New York and Philadelphia.  Apart from continuing the controversial airspace redesign for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan area, and the slot auctions for JFK, Newark and LaGuardia, which all spawned lawsuits, the FAA plans on moving forward with the redesign of the airspace for the remaining 7 metro areas.


Continue Reading FAA’s 2009-2013 Flight Plan Includes 5 More Airports Due for an Airspace Redesign