Is This FAA Program The Worst Bureaucratic Boondoggle Ever?

Ethan Barton | Investigative Reporter

Despite years of warnings by government watchdogs, Federal Aviation Administration officials have so mismanaged a crucial upgrading of the nation’s air traffic control system for so long that costs have ballooned by hundreds of millions of dollars and billions more will be spent over the next 15 years before the project is completed.

The FAA began work on the Next Generation Air Transportation System – or NextGen – in 2003. The high-tech, digital-based system is intended to manage three times more air traffic than what was then the current system and do it with significantly increased efficiency.

Creating a system to control the 50,000 and more flights made every day above the United States is an exceedingly complicated task. Little of the new system is finally operational and flaws have caused multiple airline delays and in some cases jeopardized lives.

NextGen’s original planned completion date was 2025 at a cost of $40 billion, but the latest estimate is $32 billion through 2030. Officials with Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovell III question FAA’s estimates, and note that NextGen has repeatedly gone over budget and fallen behind schedule, with millions of tax dollars unnecessarily wasted as a result.

Meanwhile, pilots and air traffic controllers are forced to continuing relying on old technology that is itself increasingly costly to maintain, according to the IG.

“NextGen is a complex undertaking that will continue to pose challenges to FAA for years to come – challenges that have been exacerbated by unrealistic plans, budgets and expectations for key NextGen programs,” Assistant IG for Aviation Audits Matthew Hampton told a June 25, 2014, hearing of a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee.

NextGen’s core problems began with the FAA’s overly ambitious plans at the outset that also lacked firm operational-requirements development priorities, the IG has reported on multiple occasions. Yet, FAA officials have resisted 24 of the IG’s major recommendations to improve NextGen, Scovel told Congress in a June 8, 2015, letter.

“GAO, the IGs, they unfortunately repeat themselves, and nothing gets done,” said Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz. NextGen “should have been done years and years ago. By the time they finish, it won’t be next generation technology. It’ll be last generation technology.”

Critics’ fears aren’t unrealistic because NextGen isn’t the first air traffic control system upgrade bungled by FAA officials.

For example, the “FAA dramatically restructured” a project begun in 1994 “after more than $2 billion was spent,” prompting intense congressional criticism of “the agency’s inability to deliver projects within cost and schedule estimates,” a 2005 IG report said.

Three interdependent projects at the heart of NextGen highlight the FAA’s failure to resolve problems and stay on schedule and on budget: the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement and Performance-Based Navigation.

The IG most recently warned that ADS-B – satellite-based technology that allows aircraft to broadcast their position continuously to air traffic controllers – likely won’t be up by 2020, which will force reliance on outdated ground-based radar systems, rather than GPS.

The technology’s delay, like many NextGen projects, “is due to underlying programmatic challenges, such as the lack of executable plan for coordinating among multiple programs, unresolved complex technical and operational issues and ineffective collaboration” with the aviation industry, Hampton said at the June 2014 hearing.

Hampton’s office, however, had reported those same findings at least 13 times previously, beginning as early as 2006.

ADS-B’s functioning is also critical to En Route Automation Modernization, NextGen’s cornerstone air traffic management system, according to multiple IG reports.

Such flaws have made the airline industry hesitant to adopt or invest in NextGen technology. Consequently, the FAA had to pay an airline $4.2 million to equip 35 aircraft with ADS-B technology, according to an April 23, 2012, IG report.

Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement, which is intended to consolidate multiple technologies to help air traffic controllers better direct aircraft near major airports, has also been the subject of multiple warnings from the IG.

The FAA estimates that TAMR will be fully deployed by 2020 at a cost of more than $1.4 billion.

Those predictions, however, “are not reliable,” and the project still “involves extensive software development and testing – a lengthy and potentially costly process should issues arise,” Hampton wrote in his June 2014 testimony.

The FAA was developing software to address 94 issues, “but anticipates identifying more gaps,” he continued.

The initial 1996 TAMR program was to upgrade 172 systems for $940 million, the IG reported in 2004. However, after that estimate grew over $2 billion, the plan was reworked to cost nearly $1.5 billion with upgrades to 122 fewer existing systems.

The IG has reported problems with TAMR at least seven times since then.

TAMR efforts at four large cities – Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Minneapolis – needed prioritization, the watchdog noted in 2004. The FAA mismanaged the related contract, which delayed terminal display replacement until four years after that warning.

Performance Based Navigation, which selects the most efficient routes for aircraft based on multiple factors and would provide benefits such as decreased fuel expenditures, was scrutinized in at least four IG reports.

“Several obstacles have undermined FAA’s efforts to increase use of PBN,” such as unclear objectives, outdated policies, the inadequate training for pilots and controllers and an insufficient amount of automation, the IG reported in November 2014.

The 2014 warning, however, repeated a 2008 report, when it noted that problems with ERAM would delay PBN, “extensive controller training will be required” and “airspace users may have to invest in more modern navigation equipment.” Another 2014 IG report predicted that the airline industry will “likely remain reluctant to equip avionics needed to advance new procedures” because of known PBN issues.

Only two percent of eligible flights at 14 major airports, for example, used curved-landing approaches – a major PBN feature – rather than a straight approach, the IG said.

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