Interesting Dialogue between Congress and Six Witnesses on NextGen; Unanswered Questions remain.

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The Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman, Rep. Shuster, gaveled a panel of six witnesses to examine how the FAA is doing in implementing NextGen and what the Reauthorization might include to improve the future actions. The headline from the statements/questions of the 13 members plus the testimony of the witnesses is that there is agreement that the FAA process must be improved and that a reliable, consistent source of funding must be defined. The posed, but answered, questions did not point to congruent solutions, sadly.

Before the Q&A began, the Chairman took time to recognize the Members of the full committee who will not be back next year. While seemingly insignificant, the tone of his comments and the gesture itself were very positively received by all the Minority and Majority Members mentioned. In fact, the replies frequently referenced how bipartisan the Chairman has been and noted that such cooperation gave them confidence that an all-important FAA Reauthorization bill will be enacted under such leadership.

Another aspect of the hearing’s structure should be noted: the absence of the FAA, GAO, AIA (whose members manufacture much of the NextGen equipment), GAMA, NATA, NBAA or any of the airport associations. Curious, but not sure whether the list was kept to six for time considerations or some other message was being sent.

The first witness was the frequent critic of the FAA and most of its actions with regard to NextGen. Inspector General Scovel was very strong in his factual statements; this quote related to the FAA’s use of personnel reforms which Congress gave with the expectation that greater flexibility would lead to greater efficiency:

Between fiscal years 1996 and 2012, FAA’s total budget

grew by 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion,

with its operations account increasing by 108 percent, from $4.6 billion to $9.7billion….Also, during this timeframe

FAA’s total personnel compensation and benefits (PC&B)

costs increased by 98 percent, from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion.

…….At the same time, FAA’s workforce has remained relatively constant. Between fiscal years 1996 and 2012, the Agency’s total number of direct-funded full-time equivalents

(FTE) decreased by 4 percent, while its controller workforce has ranged from 14,360 FTEs to 15,770 FTEs…

Further, FAA’s operational productivity has significantly decreased. Between fiscal years 1998 and 2012, FAA’s air traffic operations dropped 20 percent, and between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, air traffic activities per controller dropped 25 percent at terminal facilities. [footnotes omitted]

As to the FAA acquisition management, the IG was also critical:

These are not isolated instances. Of the 15 major acquisitions that were ongoing as of September 30, 2013—which currently total $16billion— included acquisition baseline cost increases amounting to $4.9 billion, and 8 experienced baseline delays. Most of these cost increases and delays can be attributed to WAAS, along with the Standard Terminal

Automation Replacement System (STARS), another long-running program that has evolved significantly from its original cost and schedule goals. Even still, baseline cost increases for the other six programs totaled $539million and baseline delays averaged 25 months.

That’s not a good report card.

The 15 page statement included other examples of fault-findings by the IG.

[The below summaries include both their testimony and their answers to questions posed by the Members.]

The focus moved to the “stakeholders” and Gov. Engler (who had the privilege of being introduced by Rep. Miller of Michigan) was there on behalf of The Business Roundtable, not normally an interested party at such proceedings. As President of TBR, he has commissioned a study of other countries’ efforts to modernize their airspace and what structures best suit that transition. Though his testimony mentioned this assessment, the work is not yet complete but will be delivered soon. His points were generally that TBR is concerned about unpredictable funding, an FAA organizational culture which has problems with innovation (during the incomplete history of NextGen, AT&T has implemented two national revisions of its cellular system). He pointed to recommendations by the FAA Advisory Council which unanimously urged:

· the removal of the ATO from the federal budgeting process,

· the creation of an ATO governing board, and

· separating of ATO from the FAA as a regulator.

The committee indicated that those thoughts would be carefully examined.

Capt. Lee Moak of ALPA spoke next. He reiterated the themes of reliable funding and improved FAA NextGen processes, but spoke with a little more moderation. He pointed out that the oft-cited success case of NavCanada is much smaller and that its capabilities are difficult to scale to the US’s geographical coverage. He urged a “thorough examination” before adopting some new FAA structure. His point was that the stakeholders agree with the FAA on 95% of NextGen and the remainder requires greater proof of value as well as source of funds. To prove his point, the Captain mentioned that the FAA mandated and the airlines met the equipage requirement ($100,000 per aircraft) for the Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications, only to have the FAA cancel this program.

Mark Baker, president and CEO of AOPA, made a plea directed almost solely to the 2020 requirement of ADS-B out be included in high traffic airspace plus some other concerns about the expenses associated with GA pilots under the FAA inordinately heavy regulation. The dialogue about ADS-B Out drifted to hints by Members, NATCA and even ALPA that NextGen may have to operate with the old ground based system. Nothing definitive about a two system ATC regime, but such a possibility was very traumatic for many who support NextGen’s cost-savings.

Nic Calio, A4A’s President and CEO, presented testimony which repeated this group’s position which it has made public for a while. A4A has initiated a study of its own to determine if and how NextGen might be implemented more efficiently under different structures. The models being assessed are the UK NATS, NavCanada and Germany’s ATC. He requested that no new commission be established to study and he hoped that the Congress remain open to new ideas.

Paul Rinaldi, president of NATCA, took a more cautious approach in his statement . “Change must be done with careful precision” was his basic premise. The US ATO is unequaled and incomparable. Sequestration drew the brunt of his criticism. His positive point was that the system would be much better off with a properly funded, adequately staffed situation. He said that the existing controllers are the Subject Matter Experts for implementing NextGen and the teachers of the new needed staffing. He made it clear that improvements like PBN take time; they have to be tested, developed, tested, tweaked and then implemented. Today’s ATO is efficient and doing well; tomorrow’s NextGen will be better.

Eleven members took about an hour to further understand the witnesses’ position. While some political statements were made in the form of a question and while some of the questions were meant to expand their understanding, little new information was really developed. Rep. DeFazio, a longtime member of T&I plus once a staffer of the committee, made some compelling statements:

· 83% of the FAA Acquisitions come from the Trust Funds.

· The FAA procurement is WORSE than the Defense Department.

· ADS-B in/out should be harmonized with the EU’s standards and implementation dates.

· There is no safer ATC in the world, why change? The efficiency numbers, which he has seen, demonstrate that the US and Canadian workforces are comparable.

While much of the hearing had strains of Kumbaya figuratively playing in the background, the open questions of consistent funding, a source for those dollars (i.e. who will pay), who/how/if will govern the NextGen decisions, and what must be done to improve the already reformed acquisition management system were not debated much less resolved. The good news from this two hour event is that the politicians seated on the dais seemed to be willing to consider options. The notion that ground-based and satellite systems must coexist must be quickly removed from the discussion of the NextGen cost/benefit analysis greatly revised.

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