Aviation Subcomittee Probes NextGen
October 30, 2009
  • Share
  • Panel continues oversight of new air traffic control system

    By Jim Berard

    The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation today held its latest in a series of hearings reviewing progress on the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System, or NextGen.

    Following are the prepared opening statements from full Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (Minn.), and Subcommittee Chairman Jerry F. Costello (Ill.).

    Opening Statement of The Honorable James L. Oberstar

    October 28, 2009

    I want to thank Chairman Costello for calling today’s hearing on “NextGen: A Review of the RTCA Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report.” Today’s hearing is the third Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) hearing that the Aviation Subcommittee has held this year, and all three hearings have focused on implementing NextGen in the near- to mid-term.

    In the summer of 2007, the United States was suffering terrible airline delays – over a quarter of all flights were delayed, cancelled or diverted. At that time, Chairman Costello counseled the FAA at a 2007 hearing on “Airline Delays and Consumer Issues” to begin a “frank discussion about what near-term relief can realistically be provided” by NextGen. Since that time, economic distress within the airline industry has also generated an urgent need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the air traffic control (ATC) system in the near-term, without damaging long-term NextGen goals.

    To its credit, the FAA has been responsive. Earlier this year, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and Office of Aviation Safety (AVS) jointly commissioned a NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force through RTCA[1] to develop a consensus plan with industry about what capabilities are most needed, and where they are most needed between now and 2018. The RTCA Task Force consisted of approximately 335 individuals from 141 different organizations, including airlines, business aviation, general aviation and the military, manufacturers, suppliers, vendors and labor organizations.

    On September 9, 2009, the RTCA Task Force issued its final report, which recommended a total of 29 operational capabilities sought by system operators. For example, the Task Force recommended that the FAA expand surveillance coverage of aircraft and share the information between FAA, airline flight operations centers and airports to improve the management of airport arrivals, departures and taxi operations including ramp operations. The Task Force also recommended that the FAA reassess the safety assumptions that limit the use of converging, intersecting, and closely-spaced parallel runways during low visibility conditions. In addition, the Task Force recommended that the FAA deploy FAA/industry “Tiger Teams” that focus on implementing area navigation (RNAV) and required navigation performance procedures (RNP) at airports near large metropolitan areas.

    I believe that the RTCA’s work is a major milestone for NextGen. Many in the industry expressed concern that the NextGen vision had grown unclear because it did not provide for tangible, near-term benefits. The FAA appeared to struggle at times to simply define what NextGen was, or why it was important. As Administrator Babbitt noted, the RTCA Task Force report provides “clear, actionable and achievable” recommendations that will help shape the FAA’s vision and mission for the mid-term.

    The Task Force report is also a turning point for NextGen because it represents a level of industry commitment to the NextGen effort that we have not seen thus far. Each recommendation in the report required operators to pledge to make the investments necessary in avionics, training or other expenses required to achieve the benefits. With these industry commitments in hand, the FAA is well-positioned to execute NextGen.

    Some have expressed concern that the FAA’s new focus on the 2018 timeframe may come at the expense of a more ambitious NextGen end-state vision. However, I do not believe that mid-term NextGen and a NextGen end-state are mutually exclusive. Our ATC system has evolved over time, and its future must have a firm foundation in the present. NextGen will be an evolutionary process too.

    Since FAA first announced the ATC modernization program in 1981, the United States has spent a little over $50 billion on ATC improvements and installed over 63,000 pieces of technology.

    For example, the Display System Replacement (DSR) program replaced workstations that were connected to the HOST computer system in en route centers. The primary reason for the upgrade to DSR was the technological obsolescence of the existing displays in use at en route centers. Additionally, DSR provided a Y2K compliant system that began to incorporate the use of color as an information management technology for ATC, and user customizable workstations that allowed controllers to precisely tailor display systems to their preferences. The DSR program was initiated in 1995 after the cancellation and restructuring of the Advanced Automation Program. DSR was implemented between 1997 and 2000 for about $1 billion.

    Weather information has been an important component of ATC modernization. There are now 246 total surveillance and weather radar systems, which includes ASR-9, ASDE-E, ARSR-4, TDWR, and NXRAD. Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) provides 24-hour, real time weather data to the aviation community. There are 576 ASOS systems installed. Since 1985, there have been about 200 commissioned ATC towers and Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACONs), or a combination thereof.

    Initiated in 1996, the FAA’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) has completely upgraded 47 terminal automation systems, adding full color displays, enhanced graphics including maps and weather display for terminal controllers. In addition, STARS provided enhanced accuracy by adding “Fusion Tracking” capability — the ability to simultaneously synthesize and display information from multiple radar feeds.

    NextGen end-state concepts like trajectory-based operations will transform the airspace by breaking through our current inter-state highway like grid in the sky, alleviating chokepoints in the system, and offering users more direct and fuel efficient routes. However, trajectory-based operations will not be possible without the past, present and near-term investments we are making in terminal and en route modernization.

    Many associate NextGen with the transition to satellite-based capabilities. In the last decade, the FAA has developed a new satellite-based, near-precision approach system, the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which will provide greater access and safety at airports all over the country. In addition, while automatic dependant surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) has been described as the “backbone of NextGen,” ADS-B is dependant on the Global Positioning System, which has already been built and must continually be modernized.

    For NextGen to succeed, its progress must continue to be evolutionary, built on sound contract management by the FAA. For its part, Congress must provide strong oversight in these foundational years.

    Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.

    Statement of The Honorable Jerry F. Costello

    Subcommittee on Aviation Hearing on:

    “NextGen: A Review of the RTCA Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report”

    October 28, 2009

    I welcome everyone to the Aviation Subcommittee hearing on “NextGen: A Review of the RTCA Mid-Term Implementation Task Force Report.” Today’s hearing is the third NextGen hearing Ranking Member Petri and I have held this year focused on near-to-mid-term NextGen implementation.

    Two years ago, at a hearing on “Airline Delays and Consumer Issues,” I called upon government and industry to begin a “frank discussion about what near-term relief can realistically be provided by new technology.” Since that time, economic distress within the airline industry has generated more urgency to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the air traffic control system in the near-term without damaging the long-term NextGen goals.

    IƊwill continue to hold regular hearings about NextGen related issues to ensure Congress continues its oversight role and provide a forum for open dialogue to work through the challenges that lay ahead. Important objectives are at stake, such as enhancing safety, expanding system capacity, reducing delays, cutting long-term costs, and reducing carbon emissions. How operational and management challenges in the near-to-mid-term are addressed will affect the transition to NextGen.

    I commend the foresight of the FAA’s Chief Operating Officer, Hank Krakowski, and the Associate Administrator for Safety, Peggy Gilligan, for commissioning RTCA – a private, not-for-profit Corporation that develops consensus-based recommendations – to create a NextGen Midterm Implementation Task Force. Over 335 individuals from 141 organizations, which included users from the operating communities, such as the airlines, business aviation, general aviation, and the military, as well as participation from the controllers, airports, avionics, manufacturers, and others played an integral role in identifying the challenges and offering solutions for a way forward.

    The RTCA was instructed to work with industry and prioritize which NextGen capabilities should be deployed first, and where they should be deployed to achieve the greatest benefits. A final report was delivered to the FAA in September. By bringing together representatives from all segments of the aviation industry, specific recommendations and action items were developed and a consensus on NextGen operational improvements for the near to mid-term was forged. I commend the hard work, and cooperation of all the participants.

    I believe that the RTCA Task Force’s report is a positive step forward and represents a significant breakthrough for the NextGen effort. Now, it is up to the FAA to determine how to modify its existing plans and programs in response to the Task Force’s recommendations.

    In the past, the FAA struggled to define NextGen and to clearly articulate what benefits government and industry should reasonably expect from the system. The RTCA Task Force report provides, to quote Administrator Babbitt, “clear, actionable and achievable” recommendations that will help guide us forward.

    Moreover, the RTCA Task Force report is distinguished by the support, and more importantly, the commitments that it has received from industry. Each of the Task Force’s recommendations has operator commitments to make the critical investments to achieve benefits. I believe that the industry consensus embodied in this report presents an enormous opportunity for the Obama Administration as it undertakes NextGen implementation.

    While technologies will clearly play a major role in achieving the RTCA Task Force’s recommended capabilities, industry stakeholders have also stressed the importance of reforming FAA culture, business practices, organizational structure and processes needed for successful implementation. I intend for this Subcommittee to provide consistent and rigorous oversight of NextGen near-term implementation, including many of the issues raised in the RTCA’s report, while also staying focused on NextGen long-term goals.

    For example, several different offices within FAA including the Aircraft Certification Service, the Flight Standards Service, and the Air Traffic Organization, have responsibilities that relate to NextGen. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will testify today that some stakeholders have raised concerns that FAA does not have adequate coordination across the Agency to efficiently integrate NextGen-related infrastructure and processes.

    On this topic, the RTCA Task Force report states that “FAA must commit to delivering benefits by assigning appropriate Responsibility, Accountability and Authority and funding within the agency.” Chairman Oberstar and I both expressed concerns at our NextGen hearing last March about whether the FAA’s current organizational structure adequately supports NextGen. I am still unclear whether there is a single point of responsibility, authority and accountability for NextGen activities, with the stature to leverage the intra-agency coordination that NextGen will require. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on this issue.

    In addition, there are specific recommendations in the Task Force that the Subcommittee needs to examine more closely. For example, the report recommends streamlining the operational approval and certification processes for aircraft avionics. In addition, many of the witnesses also discussed in their testimony the importance of streamlining these processes. I am aware it takes several months for an operator to gain approval once the process is initiated and it is complicated and expensive. Again, I would like to hear more from the witnesses on this issue.

    Further, FAA may be confronted by a number of staffing and workforce challenges as it moves forward with the implementation of NextGen. In September 2008, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) issued a report that identified several competencies – including software development, systems engineering, and contract administration – where the FAA currently lacks both the capacity and capabilities to execute NextGen implementation. Congress and this Subcommittee stands ready to work with the FAA to ensure the Agency has the resources it needs to meet its workforce challenges.

    Finally, I believe post Task Force engagement, such as continued collaboration and joint-decision making among all members of the aviation community is a key component to ensure successful implementation of NextGen. I strongly encourage the FAA to continue a high level of involvement and engagement with stakeholders, including operators and air traffic controllers, to ensure success. In addition, I agree that specific metrics to measure pre-and-post implementation operational performance is important data for the FAA to track. This Subcommittee has already requested that the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT IG) monitor FAA’s progress in responding to the Task Force’s recommendations and to determine if the FAA has a system in place to assess progress and measure benefits.

    Before I recognize Mr. Petri for his opening statement, I ask unanimous consent to allow two weeks for all Members to revise and extend their remarks and to permit the submission of additional statements and materials by Members and witnesses. Without objection, so ordered.

    [1] RTCA is a private, not-for-profit corporation that develops consensus-based recommendations regarding communications, navigation, surveillance, and air traffic management system issues.