NextGen budget cuts hurt EU collaboration, says GAO


Budget cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration's multi-year air traffic control modernization effort could have the effect of making coordination with European counterparts more difficult, warns the Government Accountability Office.

The FAA effort, known as NextGen, is an at least $40 billion collection of programs meant to revamp air traffic control by replacing radar with Global Positioning Satellite tracking, permitting the national airspace system to accommodate up to three times more air traffic than currently possible while reducing airplane fuel consumption and emissions through increased air traffic efficiency.

The European Union has embarked on a similar effort called the Single European Sky ATM Research, or SESAR. As the GAO notes, a lack of interoperability between NextGen and SESAR technology standards could end up forcing planes on trans-Atlantic routes to have two sets of avionics and two different operating procedures--a situation that would degrade safety.

The FAA and European Union signed a memorandum of cooperation in March 2011 establishing a formal collaborative structure for NextGen and SESAR, but any NextGen spending cuts caused by a reduction in congressional appropriations take precedence over deadlines agreed to even in the context of the formal structure, FAA officials told auditors.

For example, FAA officials said the agency is restructuring plans to implement a ground-based augmentation system because of a potential funding reduction, even as Europeans press forward with it. GBAS augments the accuracy of GPS signals. As a result, "SESAR may have an operational GBAS while FAA does not," auditors say.

FAA and European officials also told auditors cuts in their travel budget will make working with European counterparts more difficult despite the use of remote meeting tools such as WebEx, possibly resulting in schedule delays on joint projects.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-12-48 (.pdf)

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