Inspector General Finds FAA NextGen R&D Plans Lack Vision

September 7, 2016

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report on August 25 on NextGen, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) plan to modernize the air traffic control (ATC) system. The focus of the report is on FAA’s long-term plans for NextGen’s Research & Development (R&D) – NextGen is the agency’s current modernization plan which, among other things, will move navigation from radar to satellites and replace most communications between pilots and controllers from voice to text messages.

When NextGen was first announced in 2003, long-term R&D was to be the responsibility of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), a public-private partnership with government, academia, and private-sector organizations with the responsibility to plan and coordinate the development and deployment of NextGen. On the government side, agencies like NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security were included. In total, more than 190 stakeholders, representing 70 different entities, were involved with JPDO. (Ed. Note: more info on the JPDO can be found in Eno’s NextGen Working Group Final Report).

But that vision never came to be, and JPDO was eventually disbanded in 2014 when Congress cut its funding and began appropriating that money directly to the FAA instead. This OIG report studies on the FAA has been proceeding since taking over JPDO’s roles. Specifically, OIG analyzed how the FAA has been linking long-term R&D with near- and mid-term implementation efforts, how the FAA is doing in identifying high-priority R&D efforts, and how are they coordinating with other stakeholders after the disbanding of JPDO.

On the first item, FAA’s ability to link long-term R&D (after 2025, which is the deadline by which all NextGen programs should be in place) with near- and mid-term implementation efforts, the report concluded that the efforts currently underway have not been synchronized with “any long-term vision for NextGen.” Additionally, the report stated that the FAA has not established a formal process to identify the R&D necessary to implement that longer-term vision. On the second issue, FAA’s identification of high-priority R&D efforts, OIG found that the FAA lacks a clear process to identify such efforts. Also, the R&D priorities that the FAA has actually identified have not been validated by other entities, including FAA’s own Research, Engineering, and Development Advisory Committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, for example.

Finally, on FAA’s coordination with other stakeholders, OIG reported that the FAA is developing a plan to coordinate with other federal agencies, but the new memorandums of understanding (MOU) that were supposed to delineate each agency’s role have not been finalized, with no estimated deadline for conclusion. (The MOU that exist date back to when JPDO still existed.) FAA and its partner agencies also lack a system to track, coordinate, and align every agency’s R&D efforts. The exception was in FAA’s relationship with NASA, where there is a system in place to coordinate research efforts and transfer technology that is ready to be implemented.

The Inspector General made a number of recommendations to the FAA to act on these issues, including:

  • Establish and document a process for identifying and prioritizing long-term R&D.
  • Link the long-term vision for NextGen, once completed, with current R&D efforts to identify any additional R&D that may be required.
  • Finalize the MOUs between FAA and its partner agencies.
  • Have the high-priority NextGen capabilities validated by other entities.

The agency agreed to all the recommendations and proposed planned actions and completion dates between the end of 2016 and September 2017.

The report can be found here. Eno has been researching and discussing issues around ATC governance, funding, and technology for several years now, and we’ve compiled all related information (including our 2015 report on ATC reform) in our FAA Reform Reference Page.

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