DOT inspector general criticises delays in NextGen

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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made "little progress" in implementing critical elements of the controversial NextGen air traffic management system, says the inspector general of the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

"To date, FAA's progress in implementing NextGen has not met the expectations of Congress and industry stakeholders largely due to several underlying programmatic and organisational weaknesses," says Inspector General Calvin Scovel in written testimony presented to a hearing yesterday called by the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's subcommittee on aviation.

These weaknesses include the lack of an executable plan given unstable requirements and unresolved critical design decisions. Frequent turnover and the organisational culture in the FAA were also cited as causes behind the delays to NextGen, adds Scovel.

Pointing to previous reports and studies on NextGen, Scovel says that the agency has not been able to set "realistic plans, budgets and expectations" for key NextGen programmes, largely due to a lack of firm requirements for these programmes.

"Therefore, decision makers and stakeholders lack sufficient information including reliable cost and schedule estimates for achieving NextGen's goals of enhancing capacity and reducing delays to assess progress and risk," says Scovel.

The FAA has yet to resolve key design decisions in the NextGen system, such as how much responsibility for the tracking of aircraft will be delegated to pilots operating aircraft versus the proportion of responsibility that will remain with air traffic controllers, he adds.

In addition, the agency has not decided on the degree of human involvement in air traffic management and aircraft separation and also has not decided on the number and locations of air traffic facilities needed to support NextGen.

Scovel notes that it recommended to the FAA in July 2012 to develop comprehensive and updated cost estimates for its effort to realign and consolidate the USA's air traffic control facilities into centralised locations. "FAA concurred with our recommendation but has since scaled back its plans and will focus only on an integrated facility in the New York metropolitan area," says Scovel.

He also cited the frequent changes in leadership and internal organisational restructuring as a key factor behind NextGen delays.

In written testimony, FAA administrator Michael Huerta sought to defend NextGen, saying that the lack of data availability limits the measurement of NextGen improvements.

In addition, sequestration presents a "more significant challenge", he adds. "Without a predictable funding source, our ability to confidently develop long-range plans is compromised," says Huerta.