Case for ATC Reform Support

Since the early 1990s, a string of reports from presidentially appointed aviation commissions, the DOT IG, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and independent private sector experts found that the FAA’s ATC modernization and NextGen implementation efforts have been plagued by significant cost overruns and delays, calling into question the agency’s ability to deliver under the existing funding and governance structure:

Change, Challenge and Competition, The National Commission to Ensure a Strong, Competitive Airline Industry, A Report to the President and Congress, August 1993, p. 2.

“The U.S. air transportation system must be efficient and technologically superior. For too long, too many people and products have been spending too much of their time sitting on the ground in airplanes and not enough time flying them. This is true despite the fact that a new ATC technology is available that would reduce delays and increase efficiency. New technology lies within our grasp but has been thwarted by a federal funding and procurement process that is the antithesis of a rapidly changing, high technology-driven air transportation system.”

Avoiding Aviation Gridlock and Reducing the Accident Rate: A Consensus for Change, National Civil Aviation Review Commission, Norman Y. Mineta, Chair, December 1997, p. 5.

“Authority and accountability are too diffused to run a 24 hour-a-day, high technology, rapidly changing operating system for a major commercial industry. Everyone responsible for the current ATC system – the FAA, the DOT, the aviation industry, the Administration and the Congress – wants to make the system work. But there are too many people in charge. The problems are systemic and require basic changes in command and control.”

Id. at pp. 4-5.

“Federal budget rules are crippling. The present system of federal budget regulation is inappropriate for an air traffic control system controlling commercial operations that needs to be driven by demand for services. Budget rules that govern the federal aviation system must be revised.”

From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government that Works Better & Costs Less, Report of the National Performance Review, Vice President Al Gore, September 1993, pp. 68-69.

“The ATC’s problems can’t be fixed without a major reorganization. Under its current structure, the system is subject to federal budget, procurement and personnel rules designed to prevent mismanagement and the misuse of funds. The rules, however, prevent the system from reacting quickly to events, such as buying the most up-to-date technology.”

Id.

“To ensure the safety of those who fly, the FAA must frequently modernize ATC technology. But this has been virtually impossible, because the FAA’s money comes in annual appropriations. How can the FAA maintain a massive, state-of-the-art, nationwide computer system when it doesn’t know what its appropriation for next year or the years beyond will be?”

Air Traffic Control System: Selected Stakeholders’ Perspectives on Operations, Modernization, and Structure, U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-14-770, September 2014, pp. 7-8.

“Although FAA is recognized for safety and relative efficiency, its attempts to modernize the ATC system have been less successful. We have chronicled the difficulties FAA has faced completing what it envisioned initially in 1981 as a 10-year program to upgrade and replace National Airspace System facilities and equipment. For example, in August 1995, we found substantial cost and schedule overruns. To address these difficulties, in the past Congress gave FAA acquisition and human capital flexibilities to improve the agency’s management of the modernization program … However, modernization difficulties have persisted.”

Air Traffic Control Modernization: Management Challenges Associated with Program Costs and Schedules Could Hinder NextGen Implementation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-12-223, February 2012, pp. 12-13.

See note 9, p. 3.

“The three [ATC] programs with the largest cost increases – totaling more than $4 billion – are key to ATC modernization.”

See note 9, p. 3.

“ … FAA’s organizational culture – which is highly operational, tactical and safety-oriented – has been slow to embrace NextGen’s transformational vision. Gaps in leadership have further undermined the Agency’s efforts to advance NextGen. These weaknesses have contributed to stakeholders’ skepticism about NextGen’s feasibility and reluctance to invest – particularly in efforts that require airspace users to purchase and install costly equipment in their aircraft.”

Air Traffic Control System: Selected Stakeholders’ Perspectives on Operations, Modernization, and Structure, U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-14-770, September 2014, p. 11.

In a recent GAO survey of 70 industry stakeholders on the FAA’s ability to implement NextGen, only 13 said that the agency’s overall implementation was going well.”

In June 2014 the Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits at the U.S. Department of Transportation testified before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee stating–

“Since the effort began almost a decade ago, we [DOT IG] have reported on longstanding challenges and barriers that have limited FAA’s progress in delivering NextGen capabilities, such as the Agency’s inability to set realistic plans, budgets, and expectations, and clearly identify benefits for stakeholders.”

In May 2015 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine put out a congressionally mandated report on NextGen.  A small excerpt from that release is below–

“The original vision for the Next Generation Air Transportation System is not what is being implemented today, and the Federal Aviation Administration should “reset expectations” for the program meant to modernize and transform the national airspace, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.

NextGen, as the system is known, was designed to overhaul the U.S. air transportation system through procedural and technological improvements, including the use of newer technologies such as precision satellite navigation systems and a digital communications infrastructure, to increase capacity, reduce delays, and improve safety.  Instead, NextGen today is a set of incremental changes that primarily emphasizes replacing aging equipment and systems.  Although progress has provided some new capabilities and a foundation for further evolution, not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future.  The report says that FAA should realign stakeholder expectations by qualifying the early vision in a way that clearly articulates the new realities.”