For some, FAA not moving fast enough to modernize air traffic control system

A satellite-based navigation system is necessary for the FAA to handle air traffic congestion

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to phase in a next-generation air traffic control system during the next 16 years that would replace current radar technology with a more accurate and efficient satellite-based system.

However, industry observers say the agency is not moving fast enough to meet its 2025 goal of implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the FAA needs to better organize its NextGen program office and provide incentives for the airline industry to investment in the equipment needed to make it work.

Even with an advanced air traffic control (ATC) system, the FAA, airlines and airport operators will continue to face challenges in handling increased air traffic over the next two decades, the GAO told a House subcommittee this week.

“Our research has shown that the full implementation of NextGen should be considered necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, to fully eliminate current and future delays and congestion,”  the GAO said.

Among other efforts that are required is the maintenance of aging legacy air traffic control systems as the new technologies are phased in.

“More and longer unscheduled outages of existing ATC equipment and ancillary support systems indicate more frequent system failures” can be expected in the future, the GAO said.

The GAO presented its findings to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation during a hearing on FAA reauthorization. The GAO told the subcommittee that the reauthorization of FAA's programs offers Congress and opportunity to focus on critical issues as the FAA undertakes one of its most ambitious efforts to modernize the air traffic control system.

At the heart of the new infrastructure is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, which lets airplanes determine their position using a global navigation satellite system and broadcast that information to other aircraft and ground stations, rather than depending on ground-based radar. This would enable improved use of increasingly crowded airspace, and the FAA established its Surveillance and Broadcast Services program office in 2005. The FAA calls ADS-B a proven technology.

“After years of research and development, and use by general aviation pilots in Alaska and in air transport carriers in the Ohio River Valley, the FAA determined in 2005 that ADS-B is ready to be made operational throughout the national airspace system,” the FAA said.

The goal is to have the system in place by 2025, but GAO said that although the technical capabilities for the system exist, they are not being implemented quickly enough to have NextGen up and running by 2025.

Although the FAA has established a program office, the program spans many operational units and the division of responsibilities for implementation still is not clear. Steps are being taken to get a better handle on the effort, however. The agency is planning an aviation research and development facility with the private sector that would provide an environment for development, integration and testing of new technology. It also has established a NextGen task force to address issues and benefits of implementation during the mid-range phase of the program, from 2013 to 2018.

However, using the new technology by carriers will be a business decision made by the airlines. GAO said FAA still needs to provide formal incentives to industry to adopt the technology, including a combination of mandated deadlines, and operational and equipment investment financial credits.

Improving use of air space will do nothing to relieve congestion in the nation’s increasingly crowded airports, and FAA needs to adopt a comprehensive reconfiguration plan not only to incorporate NextGen into its air traffic control facilities, but to improve capacity of existing runways and terminals.

“FAA has determined that even after planned improvements have been completed at 35 of th business airports, 14 airports—including some of the 35 busiest — will still need enhanced capacity by 2025,” GAO said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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