November 8, 2017

NextGen Delayed, Just Like Your Plane

  • Air traffic control currently relies on outdated ground radar systems that cause delays throughout the aviation system.
  • The FAA is transitioning to NextGen technology, which has several components designed to allow safer and more efficient airspace management, including a switch to GPS.
  • Deployment of many NextGen components has been delayed and is expected to cost $2.6 billion more than planned.

Most U.S. air traffic continues to be routed using an ground-based radar system dating from the World War II era. The outdated technology limits airspace capacity and leads to delays. The Federal Aviation Administration is working on transitioning to a modern air traffic control system, known as “NextGen,” that includes the use of satellite-based GPS technology. Unfortunately, the rollout of NextGen has been over budget and behind schedule.


Background and current status

The FAA, a part of the Department of Transportation, has broad authority over civil aviation in the country. It not only oversees airplane safety standards, pilot certification, and airport development and operations, but also manages traffic in the national airspace. Stakeholders and observers widely agree that the FAA is using outdated technology for its air traffic control functions, and Congress in 2003 directed the agency to begin transitioning to NextGen. The transition has been rife with setbacks.

On June 5, the Trump administration released a set of “principles” on reforming the ATC system. According to the administration, “the FAA’s ATC operations are currently mired within a Federal bureaucracy that hinders innovative operations and the timely introduction of new technology.” The administration proposes fixing these problems by transitioning the FAA’s ATC operations out of the government and into an independent, non-profit entity funded by user fees. The administration’s plan follows similar legislation introduced by the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last Congress and passed by that committee.

The FAA is currently operating under a six-month authorization extension that expires on March 31, 2018. Like last year, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June favorably reported reauthorization legislation that would transition the FAA’s ATC operations out of the government. The reauthorization legislation that passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on June 29 keeps the ATC functions within the FAA while directing the agency to take steps to improve NextGen implementation.

a record of delays

There is widespread agreement that ground-based radar technology, which limits the amount of usable airspace, exacerbates flight delays and reduces flexibility in flight scheduling. Because radar readings from ground towers do not reach the controllers instantaneously, planes must fly farther apart to compensate for potential variances in location. The lack of precision and limited geographic coverage of ground-based radar towers also limit the routes available to planes.

Ground-Based Radar Forces Planes to Fly Farther Apart


In 2003, Congress directed the FAA to begin transitioning to NextGen. NextGen, which was slated to be fully deployed by 2025, will replace the use of ground-based radar with satellite-based GPS technology. The new satellite technology will allow planes to take off, land, and fly closer together and to take more direct routes between airports. Other improvements planned as part of NextGen include digital communications between pilots and controllers, more precise weather information, and new tools to help planes land and take off in inclement weather. NextGen technologies will also improve the ability of the FAA to restart or continue ATC operations after disruptions. The FAA estimates that the incremental deployment of NextGen components has provided $2.6 billion in benefits through 2016. Overall, it projects that the deployment of NextGen will provide more than $160 billion worth of benefits by 2030, although the Transportation Department’s inspector general has questioned whether these estimates are too optimistic.

NextGen Allows Real Time Tracking to Minimize Delays


For all of the expected benefits of NextGen, its implementation has faced challenges. In 2016, the FAA estimated NextGen would ultimately cost $20.6 billion, or $2.6 billion more than its 2012 projection (an August 2017 GAO report, however, cautioned that comparing “prior NextGen cost estimates against current estimates is difficult because the NextGen program has changed since 2007”). Additionally, several key NextGen features have been delayed from 2025 to 2030, and others have been delayed indefinitely. The GAO and others have also questioned whether the transition to NextGen will introduce cybersecurity risks to ATC operations and whether the FAA is doing enough to ameliorate these risks. Communities under updated NextGen flight paths have also complained about, and filed lawsuits over, increased aircraft noise.

bureaucracy and funding

The DOT inspector general in 2013 identified a few possible causes of NextGen delays. First, the original NextGen timeline may have been unfeasible in the first place. Second, the inspector general pointed to internal FAA issues that have impeded NextGen deployment, including the FAA’s inability to make key decisions “that will determine NextGen capabilities, timing, and costs.”

According to the inspector general, problems “also stem from underlying organizational and management challenges, including an organizational culture that has been slow to embrace NextGen’s transformational vision.” The challenges include frequent management turnover and the FAA’s identity as “an organization that prioritizes day-to-day operations over more strategic and policy-driven change over time.”

The Government Accountability Office has echoed many of these concerns and reported that “users have been reluctant to equip their aircraft due to the expense and uncertainty over FAA’s ability to meet timelines for deploying NextGen technologies.” More recent inspector general and GAO reports indicate the FAA has made progress in delivering NextGen components, with the GAO saying in August 2017 that “current segments of NextGen programs are generally on schedule.”  

GAO agreed with the FAA that funding uncertainty has hampered NextGen development. Currently, the FAA is funded mainly by congressional appropriations from the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which raises money through various excise taxes on passenger tickets, frequent flyer awards, cargo shipments, and aviation fuel. The FAA also charges fees on flights that cross U.S. airspace but that do not take off or land in the U.S. It does not impose user fees on operators of U.S. flights. Appropriation levels have been consistent with agency requests, but uncertainty over the length and amount of appropriations makes it more difficult to deliver long-term projects like NextGen.

what kind of reform?

In the 2012 FAA reauthorization, Congress directed the agency to take certain steps meant to speed up the NextGen transition and FAA modernization. The legislation created the position of chief NextGen officer with oversight authority over the transition, and it made other changes to the management of the project. Stakeholders have contended that while “Congress has enacted personnel and procurement reforms for the FAA in an effort to further modernize of the air traffic control system, those initiatives have had only a modest effect.” The GAO agrees, noting that “FAA’s reform efforts have not slowed the Agency’s overall cost growth or improved operational productivity as intended.”

Some, including the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Trump administration, and most major U.S. airlines, have suggested that the modernization difficulties stem from a fundamental mismatch between the FAA’s role as a regulatory agency and its ATC function. They propose chartering a new non-profit, non-governmental corporation to manage U.S. airspace. The organization would be funded by user fees and governed by a board nominated by aviation stakeholders.

Proposals for a new ATC manager are not new, and legislation to spin off the ATC system from the FAA was introduced as far back as 1976. The Heritage Foundation released a similar proposal in 1982. Approximately 60 other countries, including the U.K., Germany, and Canada, have separated their ATC functions from their government civil-aviation authorities.

Although the details of proposals vary – for instance, on whether the ATC function would be fully private or quasi-government – proponents of a spin-off contend generally that a government agency is ill-suited to manage airspace. They argue that an independent organization would be more responsive to its users, rather than to politicians. Its management also would be more accountable, and separating the corporation from a regulatory agency would allow it to make changes faster and more efficiently. These proponents, including the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, also maintain that a self-sufficient entity funded by user fees rather than congressional appropriations would have a more stable and predictable funding stream. A non-governmental corporation could also seek financing from the private sector. 

A number of stakeholders, including Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, are more cautious or are opposed to a spin-off. The general and business aviation community has expressed concerns that an ATC corporation will be beholden to the large airlines and unresponsive to the concerns of smaller entities. They are also anxious about potentially high user fees that an ATC corporation could impose on them. Delta Air Lines is not opposed to a spinoff but had previously cautioned that privatization could increase costs and hurt smaller airports by causing ATC resources to be “prioritized at larger airports that raise greater revenue, rather than being spread equally across the country.” GAO has also suggested that any proposal to spin off the ATC functions must answer difficult questions on how unforeseen events could affect traffic and revenue, insurance for the ATC entity, and what would happen to current FAA employees. A recent CRS memorandum has also indicated that the version of the ATC spinoff being considered in the House would trigger a sequester under the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010.

Additionally, an ATC spinoff would very likely trigger constitutional challenges. A CRS report questioned whether courts might determine that a non-governmental ATC corporation would be unconstitutional under the non-delegation doctrine, Due Process Clause, or Appointments Clause. Although memoranda commissioned by proponents of a spinoff discount these concerns, the move to corporatize the ATC functions would almost definitely be challenged in court.

Issue Tag: Transportation