Air Traffic Modernization Program Faces Budget Cut
March 5, 2014
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  • The Obama Administration has proposed unexpected spending cuts to an air-traffic-control modernization program, adding to industry frustrations over the slow pace of progress.

    The Federal Aviation Administration’s $15.4 billion core budget request for the next fiscal year calls for reducing spending to $836 million from the current level of $901 million for a sweeping, satellite-based revamp of nationwide air-traffic control operations, dubbed NextGen.

    The proposed 7% rollback—which is bound to increase industry skepticism about the effort—would hit everything from basic engineering to limited in-flight testing to widespread deployment of new technology.

    The White House request for NextGen in 2013 was $883 million. The new technologies are intended to help airliners fly more direct routes, reduce delays by allowing them to fly closer to each other in all types of weather and enhance safety by providing more accurate positioning data.

    The pace of NextGen development has long been a sore point between the FAA and major industry groups, which have generally been uncertain of the agency’s commitment and expertise to successfully carry out a long-term project carrying a total price tag well over $30 billion. U.S. airlines typically have been unwilling to make major financial commitments of their own before seeing more progress on the federal side and realizing clear-cut time and fuel savings from interim improvements.

    The overall FAA core request is $350 million less than estimated current outlays.

    The latest proposal does ramp up spending to transition to a new family of computer terminals to replace radar scopes and 40-year-old software used by controllers at 20 centers that have responsibility for high altitude routes across the country. The FAA also seeks to beef up a project intended to begin the switch to digital data messaging from voice communication for certain functions historically handled by radio transmissions between pilots and controllers. And the agency is asking Congress to authorize substantial new funding largely aimed at maintaining and refurbishing today’s array of aging air-traffic control systems.

    However, the FAA spending blueprint calls for a nearly 13% reduction in funds for implementing of one of the basic navigation technologies intended to help pilots keep track not only where their aircraft and nearby aircraft are flying, but where those aircraft are heading. The budget documents also include a roughly 25% cut in another central account: money for environmental research and development of metrics to demonstrate the benefits of NextGen applications.

    The specific cuts in NextGen funding pose “new obstacles to meeting program milestones in the next several years,” according to a release from the Aerospace Industries Association, a broad-based trade group representing plane and aviation-equipment manufacturers. AIA said the White House’s NextGen wish list two years ago was 20% above its current basic proposal.

    Even with today’s “austere budget environment,” the association said, “the economic benefits of the NextGen program far outweigh the nominal budget gains” if the cuts end up accepted by lawmakers. Those gains are “at risk if the program continues to be funded at shrinking levels,” said the AIA, which is based in Arlington, Va.

    The administration’s spending plan states that funding for facilities and equipment meets the challenge of “maintaining the capacity and safety” of the nation’s airways “while keeping a comprehensive modernization and transformation effort on track.”

    If Congress agrees to a government-wide, $56 billion supplement to spur jobs, education and economic growth, NextGen accounts would be boosted to nearly $1 billion. But that remains an uphill battle for the White House.

    The FAA budget request is expected to generate controversy for again proposing user fees for general aviation and business aircraft, an idea that hasn’t gained much traction on Capitol Hill. In addition, the White House wants to sharply reduce or eliminate federal construction grants to larger airports, while nearly doubling current airline passenger facility charges. Both proposals are bound to face severe turbulence from lawmakers.