Budget cuts could suspend NextGen programs, says Huerta

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Enactment of House Appropriations Committee-approved levels of fiscal 2014 funding for the Federal Aviation Administration would likely require suspension of air traffic control modernization projects not close to completion, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a July 17 House panel.

House Appropriations approved June 27 a spending bill (H.R. 2610) that would appropriate $2.15 billion for FAA facilities and equipment, well below the requested amount of $2.78 billion and less than the $2.73 billion current year enacted amount, according to the bill report (.pdf).

Within that amount are $43.6 million of cuts targeted to NextGen, the air traffic modernization program, and distributed cuts that would also affect it, Huerta said.

"NextGen capabilities supporting information sharing and programs that are nearing completion in fiscal 2014, which provide near-term improvements, would be taken to completion," Huerta told the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. The NextGen program just getting underway would likely need to be suspended."

NextGen is at least $40 billion collection of programs meant to revamp air traffic control by replacing radar with GPS tracking and undertake other improvements.

One of those efforts is DataComm, which seeks to replace voice communications between pilot and air traffic controller with text messages, a program that could see implementation harmed by budget cuts.

"Given where it is, in its planning cycle, and our funding choices, that is one that does very much concern me, in terms of its affordability," Huerta acknowledged. Transportation Department auditors in August 2012 noted that the timeline for implementing some DataComm capabilities slipped from 2016 to 2018, possibly having an effect on already-reluctant airlines' willingness to invest in cockpit equipment necessary for its implementation.

During the hearing, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel noted that DataComm is the second attempt by the FAA to create a text communications service; it canceled a previous version in 2005 due to technical difficulties after spending $100 million, he said. Some commercial airliners had already bought equipment for it, however.

As a result, airlines are now "very reluctant to repeat what they view as a mistake," and so need to see FAA "make solid, consistent and prolonged progress on DataComm before they're going to spend more money on it," Scovel said.

They are very reluctant to repeat what they view as that mistake, and so they want to see FAA make solid, consistent and prolonged progress on DataComm before they're going to spend more money on it.

In his testimony, Scovel also said the $2.4 billion En Route Automation Modernization radar-tracking software effort is now deployed at least part-time at 16 of 20 air route traffic control centers and that FAA plans to decommission Host, the legacy system ERAM replaces, by August 2014.

However, FAA spends $12 million a month on the ERAM contract, Scovel said, "and if the contract burn rate does not decrease significantly, FAA will need additional funds to complete the program."

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimony and webcast available)

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