US budget fight continues to hamper NextGen

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A contentious federal fiscal environment and budget cuts known as the sequester continue to hamper implementation of the next generation air transportation system, known as NextGen, say lawmakers and officials.

“Fiscal uncertainly is a significant challenge to making investments we need to support modernisation,” Michael Huerta, administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says today. “As we are trying to plan for the long-term future, we are being forced to make short-term decisions... that work at cross purposes.”

Huerta made his comments in Washington, DC, to attendees of the 2013 Annual Public Meeting of the NextGen Institute, a nonprofit group created to promote collaboration between private- and public-sector aviation experts.

Huerta notes the FAA already cut $637 million from its $15 billion annual budget due to across-the-board federal budget cuts called the sequester.

Those cuts, which took effect in March, nearly forced the agency to shutter 149 air traffic control towers.

Huerta says the FAA is now making contingency plans for a complete shutdown in 10 days, when the federal government is set to run out of money.

Lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a shutdown, but progress is hampered by deep political divides.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives passed a bill today that would keep the federal government running, but the measure would strip money from President Barack Obama’s health care law, making it unlikely to pass the Senate.

“[This is a] very contentious fiscal environment,” Rick Larsen, a Democratic congressman from Washington state tells event attendees.

“In [this] environment, programmes everywhere are feeling the heat, and NextGen is really no exception,” adds Larsen, who is also a ranking member of the House of Representatives’ aviation subcommittee.

Still, Larsen says the time has come for the FAA to make several key decisions critical to NextGen implementation.

For instance, he says the FAA must decide how much responsibility for tracking aircraft will be held by pilots, and how much will be held by air traffic controllers.

“Sequestration and looming budget cuts make it less likely these decisions can be made in the foreseeable future,” he adds.

The FAA has been widely criticised for delays in NextGen implementations.

A July report from the inspector general of the US Department of Transportation said the FAA has made “little progress” in implementing critical elements of the program.

FAA has not met expectations of Congress of industry members due to organisational and programmatic weaknesses, said the report.

Still, Larsen and other speakers at the event say NextGen has already resulted in notable aviation improvements.

For instance, 500 of 700 automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations have already been installed, and the remaining 200 will be installed in 2014, says Larsen.

ADS-B is an aircraft tracking technology that will replace aircraft tracking by radar.

In addition, some airlines, including JetBlue Airways, already use ADS-B technology.

JetBlue has been able to operate flights using ADS-B in weather the airline normally would not operate, says deputy secretary of transportation John Porcari, who also spoke at the event.

In addition, NextGen technology has reduced flight times to major US airports like Seattle-Tacoma International airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association and former FAA administrator, tells attendees.

“The challenges need to be overcome... But I contend that real progress is being made,” she says.