GAO: NextGen costs skyrocket

Aviation International News » January 2011
December 23, 2010, 8:57 AM

When Congress in 2003 signed off on the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act–better known as Vision 100–it officially set in motion the Next Generation Air Transportation System (Ngats) plan, which by 2025 would transform the legacy 20th Century communications, navigation and surveillance domains into an operating environment employing the advanced technologies of the future.

Transformation, not upgrade, was the key word, but what Vision 100 stood for has never been adequately explained.

Ngats, later to become NextGen, would–and still eventually must–be a series of bold, imaginative and yet essential steps forward if aviation is to realize its full potential. But eight years later, some of those steps have, not unexpectedly, been stumbles along the way, as a series of reports from various government and industry bodies have pointed out. None of these missteps is fatal, and some have even turned out to be beneficial, such as the realignment of early equipage priorities following user-community recommendations. In fact, the FAA has demonstrated more responsiveness to user concerns about its NextGen plans than with any other of its past programs.

Yet, inevitably, concerns still remain, and these were reviewed in a November Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Putting aside technical criticisms such as the operational difficulties with NextGen's much vaunted En Route Automation Modernization (Eram) project, and the delays in other promised technologies, the GAO examined the FAA's challenge in actually defining NextGen and, consequently, the user community's uncertainty about its costs versus its benefits.

NextGen is composed of initial, mid and final segments, with respective completion in 2015, 2018 and 2025. Currently only the initial segment is fully defined and under way, embracing ADS-B, performance-based Rnav and RNP and several lesser ­projects. However, unmentioned by the GAO, FAA Engineering tossed in a nasty curve in August, requiring early ADS-B volunteer purchasers to cover costly installation certification standards, to prove that no problems exist, after which subsequent installations will be much cheaper. FAA Engineering may be surprised to find early volunteers have suddenly become scarce, and the ADS-B out 2020 mandate could find itself in jeopardy. (See article on page 12.)

Agency planners do not expect to finalize the mid segment structure–potentially including DataComm and System Wide Information Management (Swim) among other things–until 12 to 18 months from now, at which point the detailed technical specifications will allow industry to actually plan production and follow-on testing and certification. Also, while the "best equipped, best served" concept seems to have been accepted by the user community, it now appears that the FAA has yet to come up with the way the concept would actually be applied, and just what "best equipped" really means.

Understandably, the FAA is finding it even more difficult to define the technologies required in the final segment in other than broad terms, since concepts identified in 2003 are likely to be superseded by promising new technologies still on the drawing boards.

At the same time, costs rather than technologies have become the overriding issue for both the government, with serious deficits, and industry, with its massive past losses and the imperative to realize benefits from any future investments. The oft discussed installation incentives appear now to be even more distant than they were in 2009, although they could become the pivotal precursor to NextGen's final segment implementation. Here, Joint Project Development Office (JPDO) officials told the GAO that full fleet equipage by 2025 could increase ground and airborne costs from earlier estimates of $40 billion to $160 billion. Extending full compliance out to 2035–which an earlier assessment by the DOT's Inspector General felt was closer to the system's technical readiness–would lower that total, but still remain significantly above $40 billion. According to NextGen officials, it appears that staying within the $40 billion estimate can be achieved only by reducing NextGen's capabilities.  

The GAO report, at www.gao.gov/new.items/d11132r.pdf, focuses hard realism on a challenging program.

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