Watchdog: FAA's NextGen at risk

Washington DC
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The US DOT's office of inspector general has issued a report critical of the FAA's performance in launching the next generation air transportation system (NextGen).

"Not taking timely action on these issues now could delay FAA's plans to transition to NextGen," writes Lou Dixon, DOT's principal assistant inspector general (IG) in the 16 June report.

FAA through NextGen is planning to create an air traffic system by 2025 that can handle three times more traffic and at the same time reduce its operating costs, in part by replacing today's ground-based air traffic control with a satellite-based system, a move that in theory will allow it to eliminate many of its radar facilities.

"Since [NextGen] began in 2005, we have repeatedly reported on the cost and schedule risks and operational and management challenges NextGen faces," says Dixon of the $40 billion programme. "These concerns prompted us to identify NextGen as one of the Department's top management challenges."

In the assessment, requested by the leadership of the US House aviation subcommittee, the OIG says the FAA has not yet established "firm requirements" to help guide its cost and schedule estimates for ongoing projects or new acquisitions under the programme.

For example, of the 51 decision points that were to be made in fiscal year 2009 as laid out in the agency's most recent roadmap, only 11 were made. Open items that could impact the 2025 transition to NextGen include an investment decision on a NextGen weather processor, deciding the responsibilities and level of automation for pilots and controllers in the new system and determining which FAA facilities should be consolidated.

Further, projects aimed at demonstrating NextGen benefits for the user community in the mid-term (2012-2018) "lack coordination and are not outcome-based", says the IG, noting that the FAA needs to develop sufficient data to establish a path for certifying new systems and must set "realistic expectations" for what can be achieved in the mid-term. Dixon says the agency must also work more closely with partner agencies, particularly the Department of Defence (DoD) to determine if military technologies like satellite-based precision landing systems might be applicable to NextGen.

Along with a plan to review and identify DoD technologies that might be applicable, recommendations to the FAA include conducting an assessment of risks associated with implementing multiple NextGen capabilities concurrently in the mid-term and assessing safety and implementation risks of mixed-equipage operations.