FAA faces management, technical, funding challenges

The Federal Aviation Administration faces the challenge of operating and maintaining an increasingly strained aviation system while transitioning to the next generation of air traffic control, agency officials have said. Overshadowing those challenges is the fact that FAA does not have a long-term reauthorization or financing mechanism in place, said Calvin Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

The taxing and spending authority for FAA programs under the Airport and Airway Trust Fund expires Feb. 29, Ramesh Punwani, FAA chief financial officer, said during a Feb. 7 hearing on the fiscal 2009 FAA proposed budget before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee. The trust fund pays for 84 percent, or $12.6 billion, of this year’s budget for airport improvement, equipment, research and development.

“Our airports, facilities and equipment and research personnel, approximately 4,000 employees, will be sent home because they can only be paid from the trust fund,” Punwani said.

Without an extension, Punwani said, the agency also will not be able to provide funding for foundation programs for both the existing air traffic control system and the Next Generation Air Transportation System. These contracts include the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, En Route Automation Modernization and the Wide Area Augmentation System.

The agency has been operating under temporary extensions since Oct. 1, while the House and Senate have separate versions of bills to reauthorize the FAA. The House is expected to take action on another temporary extension.

The total fiscal 2009 proposed budget is $14.6 billion, almost 2 percent less than this year’s budget. Of that, NextGen research and technologies would receive $688 million, nearly $500 million more than for this year. The amount would include funding for air traffic controllers and safety inspectors. Last summer, FAA released public versions of NextGen’s enterprise architecture. The agency also awarded a contract to ITT for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, a new satellite-based surveillance system, which has the potential to enlarge capacity and enhance safety.

It will be critical to keep existing modernization efforts on track because 30 projects are expected to serve as platforms for NextGen, Scovel said.

“While we are not seeing the massive cost growth or schedule slips that occurred in the past, we are concerned about several projects that continue to experience cost and schedule risks or reduced benefits,” he said, including the Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X, intended to prevent accidents on runways.

In addition, FAA should prepare a new national runway safety plan and address air traffic controller overtime and fatigue issues that may affect runway safety, said Gerald Dillingham, director of the Government Accountability Office’s physical infrastructure issues office.

GAO has recommended that FAA improve the accuracy and completeness of its safety data and analysis of the data and make sure it has user-friendly databases. GAO has found problems with the completeness of FAA’s safety inspection data and the usefulness of its enforcement database. Although the agency has made progress, FAA still needs to provide full information on runway incursions, Dillingham said.

“Accurate, comprehensive data are particularly important for FAA as it moves away from an oversight approach that focuses on labor-intensive inspections to a system safety approach that is based on analyzing data to assess and prioritize risks,” he said.

FAA still must maintain its existing infrastructure, while keeping current system acquisitions on budget and on schedule at the same time that it plans for implementation of early NextGen projects, Dillingham sa id.

FAA needs to establish reasonable expectations for its NextGen investments and realistic time frames for improvements to capacity and reduced delays, Scovel said. In addition, officials said,  FAA needs to:
 
• Conduct a gap analysis of the current and future airspace capabilities to determine its requirements, along with their cost and schedule.
 
• Develop an architecture for what it can accomplish by 2015 to determine priorities and understand complex transition issues.
 
• Develop a strategy for acquiring the necessary skill mix to effectively manage and execute NextGen, such as proficiency in systems integration and systems engineering.

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