Clearly updating the technology to run the nation’s ATC system hasn’t been nearly as easy or as cheap as anyone expected. A new report from the Senate Republican Policy Committee says, in fact, that perhaps the original timeline to bring NextGen to fruition was unrealistic to begin with.
Beyond that theory however, NextGen is Delayed, Just Like Your Plane, sounds very similar to versions of the proposal put forth by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA). So, why now? Probably to remind everyone that neither the Senate nor the House versions of the legislation designed to slice the FAA away from air traffic control have gone away; they’re only on a short hiatus. The current extension to FAA funding, including ATC expires on March 31, 2018.
Essentially, NextGen is Delayed, Just Like Your Plane, claims delays in the nation’s airspace stem from the FAA’s use of outdated equipment such as World War II-era ground-based radar, a wobbly funding stream and FAA officials who continue to get in the way of the entire modernization process. If only there were a better way.
There are certainly elements of truth in the Senate report, but those facts could easily trip up a person lacking in-depth industry knowledge. Take the explanation of radar, a system invented during WW II. The report implies that the over-budget and behind-schedule NextGen is operating with radar older than most people reading this story, a conclusion that is more than a bit disingenuous. The capabilities of the current digital radars used in TRACONs and ARTCCs have evolved dramatically over the past seven decades.
Next, look at the ATC delays the airlines claim as the basis for this huge kerfuffle of separating FAA from ATC. The policy paper says the answer is more new technology like an all-satellite based navigation system, a move that will be booted along by the FAA’s 2020 mandate that all aircraft operating in congested airspace be ADS-B Out capable. For years, the dialogue from the FAA has been clear: no exceptions to the 2020 mandate, except they did grant one huge exception to the airlines themselves. While not exempted forever, the airlines have been granted a grace period to continue to use already installed GPS systems that “satisfy the ADS-B Out performance requirements, to varying degrees.”
The Airlines for America, the trade association for the major airlines and the same group calling for the separation of FAA from ATC because of the lack of progress on NextGen and the delays that causes the airlines, petitioned for and won the exemption from the agency that allows airliners to fly without state of the art ADS-B Out equipment until December 31, 2024. Nowhere in the claims about airline delays does the report mention the relationship between those delays and airline scheduling often responsible for trying to cram too many airplanes into the same airport at the same time.
Funding is a perpetual issue, as we see with the current extension that expires in the spring. Sadly, there is no mention in the report that taxes are all being regularly collected and are sitting in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund waiting to be distributed. How severing ATC from the FAA will overcome the Congressional firewall that allows the agency to access those funds is a topic not addressed by the report either.
Nor is there an explanation of how, last year, the A4A portrayed business aviation as the biggest single roadblock to modernization and as a special-interest group that had for decades skirted around its fair share of taxes to operate the system. Then, out of nowhere came the olive branch flip-flop from A4A that seems to say, never mind, we’ll now agree to exempt business aviation and the rest of general aviation from any user fees if they’ll only jump on the privatization bandwagon. Forget that we called you folks jet-setter cheapskates in the past.
The Senate report does mention another shark circling the privatization effort, however, that the Congressional Research Service believes a non-governmental organization running ATC might be unconstitutional. Though, the report doesn’t mention that a Congressional Budget Office audit said current pending legislation, expected to come alive again before the FAA’s extension expires next spring, “could add as much as $100 billion to the budget deficit.”