Implementing Next Generation Air Traffic Control System

Several House members recently slammed the FAA for the way it has reorganized to begin implementing the NextGen system. Several months ago, the agency created a new position within its Air Traffic Organization (ATO): Senior Vice President for NextGen and Operations Planning. As the person filling this key position, Vickie Cox, told the House Committee on Science and Technology on Sept. 11th, the move “reflects the changing focus of NextGen from purely planning and research to actual implementation and integration of technologies.” Henceforth, the Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) will focus on long-term (beyond 10 years) R&D and cross-agency coordination, while the new ATO office will handle near-term implementation and mid-term planning. But House Aviation Subcommittee chairman Jerry Costello (D, IL) was outraged, because Congress was not consulted before the Secretary of Transportation, who chairs JPDO, made this decision. He called this decision a “major mistake” that downgraded the status of JPDO. He said the FAA should have waited for the passage of the FAA reauthorization legislation. The House version of that bill calls for the JPDO to report directly to the FAA Administrator. That bill, as we all know, is now a full year overdue, and Congress just enacted another six-month continuation of the old authorization, since the Senate has still not acted. But aside from the problem of waiting indefinitely for Congress to act, did DOT make the right decision on this? Costello and other offended members of Congress claim that “there is wide agreement within the aviation community that JPDO should report directly to the FAA Administrator.” But that’s not what the Government Accountability Office found when it went out and interviewed 24 key aviation stakeholders (GAO-08-1078, September 2008). While that specific question was not asked, much of the interview content dealt with effective management structures for the transition to NextGen. Of those responding on whether JPDO planning documents were useful for making decisions, 19 out of 21 said no. On whether FAA has adequate expertise to make the transition, 10 out of 14 responding said no. And when asked whether the FAA, JPDO, and OEP have the leadership needed for the transition, none said yes. Likewise, none said yes to whether the relationship between FAA and JPDO is adequate for the transition. (Remember, these inte rviews took place prior to FAA’s creating the new Senior VP position.) In my discussions with well-connected people on this issue, I’ve been told repeatedly that the industry’s role in the JPDO has been largely ineffective. Stakeholders do take part in JPDO task forces, but they are not part of the decision-making process. The FAA’s Operational Evolution Partnership (OEP) is supposed to be a vehicle for real input on NextGen implementation; its OEP Review Board is chaired by the aforementioned Vickie Cox and JPDO Director Charles Leader. Organized stakeholder input is supposed to be coordinated by RTCA, Inc., functioning as a Federal Advisory Committee composed of nearly all the usual aviation alphabet groups. But there are two big problems with this structure: (1) it must operate by consensus, and (2) its inputs are only advisory. Trying to get consensus among aviation groups including AOPA and ATA is difficult if not impossible. In part, that is because each group knows that it can prevent consensus, and if somehow the FAA ends up taking an action it doesn’t like (e.g., mandating ADS-B equipage by 2015 instead of 2020), it can always run to Congress to intervene. So to some extent, the brouhaha over whom the JPDO reports to is something of a side-show, when the larger governance mechanism is so dysfunctional. By contrast, in Europe’s ongoing SESAR organization for ATC transformation, the key aviation stakeholders are a direct part of the decision-making structure (not mere advisors). That means they have incentives to cooperate, even to the point of making deals that keep implementation moving forward. And Europe’s governments do not seem intent on stepping in to micromanage the decision-making, either. Reason Foundation’s Air Traffic Control Research