Frustration on Progress, Concern About Noise are Key Topics at House NextGen ATC Roundtable

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation held a virtual roundtable this week on air traffic control (ATC) modernization efforts. “Final Approach: An Update on ATC Modernization” consisted of a roundtable format where seven witnesses could be questioned by any members of the subcommittee. As such, the witnesses did not submit prepared testimony.

Most of the discussion involved the broad frustration at the lengthy timetable to implement the unfinished elements of NextGen Air Traffic Control, concerns about aircraft noise, and questions about how Congress can expedite the potential benefits of NextGen. The following witnesses participated:

  • Teri Bristol, Chief Operating Officer of the Air Traffic Organization, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Pamela Whitley, Assistant Administrator for NextGen, Federal Aviation Administration
  • The Honorable Eric J. Soskin, Department of Transportation Inspector General
  • Russell “Chip” Childs, NextGen Advisory Committee (Mr. Childs is also the CEO and President of SykWest Airlines)
  • Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy, Airlines for America
  • Paul Rinaldi, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association
  • Bob Fox, First Vice President, Air Line Pilots Association

Aviation Subcommittee leaders Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) started the roundtable expressing their concern with the slow implementation and high costs associated with NextGen ATC investments. Several other members echoed those calls, and while there are differing claims to the starting date, the effort to modernize ATC in the United States has been ongoing for at least 15 years and has cost at least $9 billion in taxpayer funds. This new system still needs substantially more federal resources and time to be completed.

In 2007, the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office projected the net benefits of NextGen at $213 billion, considerably more than the initial investment. The improvements are wide-ranging: planes will be able to safely fly closer together and take more direct flight paths and the system will be able to recover faster from severe weather events and other disruptions. These have tangible benefits to time savings and fuel savings for passengers and airlines alike.

(For more information about NextGen, check out Eno’s FAA reform page)

But representatives pointed out that a March 2021 report by the Office of the Inspector General estimated the benefits to be far less than what they were told previously. While still far exceeding costs, the projected benefits were $100 billion less than originally anticipated. According to Soskin, this reduction comes mostly from the per-passenger time savings benefits, which have been dramatically reduced due to COVID-19 and other factors.

Bristol, Whitley, and Soskin fielded a barrage of questions from committee members on the cause of delays and their ongoing efforts at FAA to complete key elements of NextGen. COVID-19 was particularly disruptive, according to the officials, as the pandemic has upended the entire industry and made in-person collaboration among FAA staff difficult. They also touted some recent successes, including operational changes at Boston Logan International Airport and Seattle Tacoma International Airport. In those cases, equipped aircraft can fly with closer spacing, allowing for capacity and fuel efficiency gains. Pinkerton mentioned that while there has been disappointment in the speed of progress, the industry is ready to work with FAA to resolve some of the bottlenecks.

A key investment needed to achieve the full range of benefits associated with NextGen is to have all aircraft equipped with the communications technologies to interact with the GPS-based system. Most mainline aircraft have done this using more than $1 billion in private-sector airline investment, but hundreds of regional aircraft have yet to be equipped due to the lack of resources to do so. Childs and Pinkerton both recommended $1.5 billion in federal grant funds to end the mixed equipage scenario and allow all unequipped aircraft to be modernized.

Several members pressed the witnesses on growing concerns related to noise. While NextGen allows for more efficient landing and takeoff airspace, it changes and concentrates flight patterns and has resulted in increased noise complaints at certain neighborhoods. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) was particularly concerned about the new flight patterns at Boston Logan International Airport, which have lessened noise in some neighborhoods and concentrated them in others. FAA’s longstanding strategy has been to focus on quieter engines, but also has several programs for noise abatement.

Delays and concerns about NextGen implementation are far from new. In 2013, Eno launched an Aviation Working Group initiative looking at this very issue. Our 2015 report found that the key to unlocking ATC modernization lies primarily in reforming the governance of the FAA, and recommended policies to create a new entity for ATC independent from FAA. Despite the unsuccessful attempts at reform five years ago, there was a broad coalition of support for significant reform and hearings focused directly on governance reform. At this roundtable, however, governance reform was not even mentioned.

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