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Scathing report: FAA isn’t delivering what was promised in $40 billion NextGen project

Mincing no words, the panel of 10 academic experts brought together by the academy’s National Research Council (NRC) said the FAA was not delivering the system that had been promised and should “reset expectations” about what it is delivering to the public and the airlines that use the system. ( More...

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LGM118 16
Clearly, nobody at WaPo or at the GOP has actually read the report. Let's clear the air on this. Starting from the top of the report, it's very clear that the WaPo editing staff is being lazy here. Even the specific quotes they use are cherry picked to all hell. First of all, the report is not even close to what one could remotely call "scathing." Rather, it argues that NextGen has mostly become a modernization program. The NRC Committee sees this as highly valuable, but that "With so many stakeholders and so many moving parts, different understandings of 'what is NextGen' arose. As the committee has come to understand it, NextGen today is a set of programs to implement a suite of incremental changes to the NAS. Although some technologies and/or systems will be new, in most cases, current plans call for them to be used to closely replicate existing capabilities (such as satellite navigation used to replace radar functionality rather than the reinvention of flight)." (National Research Council, 1). In other words, no, NextGen is not "failing", rather, the program has, as occurs with many large, multifaceted programs, come to mean a number of different things and in this case that has resulted in a more conservative program focused on near- and medium- term improvements rather than total reinvention.

One of the biggest problems, as the NRC sees it, is actually that politicians don't seem to understand the technical aspects of these kinds of large projects. They praise the FAA in the introduction, finding that, "An important part of NextGen is addressing the need to replace aging equipment. Such modernization is essential and important. Replacing or upgrading systems while continuously and safely operating the whole system is an intricate undertaking, a process that the FAA seems to have mastered. The successful operation of such systems requires ongoing alterations and improvements, not just the occasional repair of faulty equipment and software." (National Research Council, 1) The FAA can't just shut down all airspace for a month in order to hit a reset button. All new systems have to be built taking into account the many different existing systems in place, the limitations of those systems, and in order to ensure a safe transition. Implementation has to be phased in and delicately built up.

That said, there are clearly some deficiencies at the FAA. The key trend that the report seems to get into is that while FAA is effective in risk management and systems architecture understanding, they tend to have a very near-sighted approach to problems, usually seeing new systems as being layered onto existing, a decidedly cautious approach. If anything, the FAA is doing its job while Congress seems not to be, "As for any large-scale government IT effort, a long-term commitment is important. ...there is a specific need for support of ongoing maintenance and modernization (upgrades) and refreshing and modernizing of both hardware and software to provide reliable, cost-effective operation. Too often in government, funds are allocated for specific (new) programs or projects without sufficient
allocation for the full life-cycle costs and for maintenance and refresh of existing (and still important)programs." (53). Basically, Congress has created a situation where funding for the FAA's normal capital and operating needs are tight, but anything with "NextGen" in the name gets a ton of money (comparatively). In such an environment, the FAA has quite a lot of incentive to basically use NextGen in order to support its ongoing capital and operational needs in terms of regular hardware and software upgrades and maintenance. The solution here is obviously that there needs to be a better understanding in Congress that large projects like NextGen require a careful, managed approach with expectations tempered by technical realities, that the FAA has not done a great job communicating those realities does not mean they don't exist. The view that we can just "fund the new program" and then everything will magically be fixed because systems are easy to put in place is highly problematic, and it's definitely a problem in Congress, but the NRC report is saying not so much at the FAA.

TLDR version: NRC Report isn't "scathing", the real problem is that Congress' expectations don't take technical realities into account at all, while the FAA doesn't have the staff or technical leadership capabilities to develop transformational systems, so they use their technical expertise to instead implement modernization.

National Academies Press, "A Review of the Next Generation Air Transportation System:
Implications and Importance of System Architecture (2015)" Online PDF, Accessed May 4, 2015.
Chuck Me 3
Thank you for the link to the actual report.
David Ferris 2
Dude, your post is nonsense. Congress does not force money on agencies. The agencies request funding for programs with specific objectives. Congress approved the FAA's request and then they have a Constitutional duty to exercise oversight to ensure the money is not wasted. In this case, the FAA promised a Mercedes S500 but delivered a lawn tractor. Heads should roll. If this were the private sector, heads would roll. We are talking about $40B for crisakes. For that amount of money, NASA put a man on the moon.
Bernie20910 1
News organizations are lazy and biased towards sensationalism rather than actual journalism, and politicians don't know their hindquarters from a hole in the ground? Wow... who'd a thunk it?
LGM118 2
I know, right? The worst part is that the NRC probably did months of interviews, hundreds, if not thousands of man-hours of data gathering (and analysis), had to learn how ATC systems work, and just a whole bunch of other stuff, all for it to be reduced down to sound bytes.

It's not even the lazy journalists or the dumb politicians, it's the sheer level to which they reduce thousands of hours of work down to two sentence blurbs that reinforce what they want to hear. The shame isn't in the idiocy and laziness, it's that the researchers and academics try so hard anyways. It's painful to watch.
I was a senior executive in the aerospace and electronics fields for over 30 years. I have worked with every military and commercial customer in the US, and most of their foreign conterparts. FAA ranks dead last as a customer in my experience. No abiity to make decisions, very limited technical expertise, extremely tangled management buerocracy, and what have you,

I was working on next gen ATC back in the early 80's, and the progress since then is nil, but the expenditures have been astronomical
Ken Hardy 4
"I am from the FAA and I am here to help you" RIGHT
sparkie624 2
Who ever thought it would!
Tony Mumm 2
I realized i need to reset my expectations when I was elated when the government only wasted 6 billion.
tcavin 2
someone expected a government agency to do something well?
sparkie624 1
Not me.... I would never expect them to do anything in an on schedule manor.... except collect taxes.
David Ferris 1
How much does the government pay for air transportation and how much do they take in from the outrageous taxes I pay on my tickets.
bbabis 0
Anyone surprised?
LGM118 1
At what, exactly?
bbabis 0
First off, what did this new scathing report cost us and in what direction will it send the next billion dollar shotgun blast of fixer upper? "Clearly some deficiencies at the FAA" is an understatement. The FAA is devoid of leadership and incapable of performing its functions with the academic and political pundits, who know nothing of aviation, constantly moving the target and adding sand to the gears. And now, a self-supporting government corporation modeled after several European examples is being proposed. I shouldn't have to tell you what that line of code speak means. Years ago we poured billions into the Aviation Trust Fund with our fuel taxes and other aviation user fees just for this purpose down the road. We had the funds to pay for NextGen several times over. What did we get? Clinton (billyboy) spent it on his minions and social programs and left the fund with worthless IOUs. As the years have gone by, they act as if the Aviation Trust Fund never existed and the public is told every dime has to come from the good graces of the taxpayer or poached from the sick and elderly. The fact that we have anything done is encouraging. The fact that the system is not already up and running at half the cost is criminal.
LGM118 3
Let's answer your questions:

"First off, what did this new scathing report cost us and in what direction will it send the next billion dollar shotgun blast of fixer upper?"

The report was conducted by the National Academies, ( for the project overview page). The report was a stipulation of Section 212 of the FAA Modernization Act of 2012. The report gives a number of different recommendations, though the key recommendation is that the FAA needs to better outline the details of the NextGen process to key stakeholders so that program goals can better align with operational realities.

Now, in terms of your argument that we "poured billions into the Aviation Trust Fund with our fuel taxes and other aviation user fees just for this purpose down the road." Your comments belie a fundamental ignorance about how the FAA operates. The money from the Aviation Trust Fund goes to maintaining the National Airspace System (staffing and maintaining facilities and paying for general operations). The Fund has a lot of limits on its use that prevent the FAA from using it to fund NextGen. Even if they could, they would not have enough money from the ATF to achieve their core missions and implement NextGen.

In fact, as often happens in Washington, there has been a sort of "shell game" going on - increasing systems and software costs, as well as wage inflation in the tech sector, have limited FAA's ability to support its operations with revenues from the ATF. Congress has basically said "I know! We'll fund NextGen and that will solve all the problems!", but the problem is that all the while, the FAA can't engage in necessary short-term projects like ERAM with their regular budget, so they basically are forced to either delay necessary improvements or use NextGen as a funding source for these projects.

Long story short, the problem is mostly on the political side; FAA is basically doing the best they can with the limited resources they have.
David Ferris 2
"they basically are forced to either delay necessary improvements or use NextGen as a funding source for these projects."

So. It is not the FAA's fault that they violate their fiduciary resonsibility. Right!

"FAA is basically doing the best they can with the limited resources they have."

Seriously, $40B has become a "LI MITED" resource?!
David Ferris 1
"increasing systems and software costs, as well as wage inflation in the tech sector"

None of these begin to compare to wage inflation in the government administrator sector. The difference is that systems and software are becoming more powerful and government administrators are becoming less competent hacks.
David Ferris 1
Wage inflation in the tech sector doesn't Elgin to
TWA55 0
"extremely tangled management buerocracy", would agree w/ this, but hey, welcome to the Federal Empire of the USA, too much waste, to many employees, and some really stupid politicians who can spend more waste in a minute then most country's have assets. I guess this beast won't be fed till we all work for the U.S. gov. and tax every penny made.

[This comment has been downvoted. Show anyway.]

Bernie20910 1
And that same high altitude, high energy burst would not affect a hard wired ground based system? If anything, the ground based system is even more susceptible to damage from that burst than a space based system would be. The biggest cause of damage in such a burst is voltage spikes, induced in long lengths of wiring, as shown in Hawaii with Starfish Prime in 1962. And before you point out that the same test did a massive amount of damage to satellites then in orbit I'll point out that modern satellites are much better hardened against such damage now, precisely because of what those tests showed. Our aging, ground based systems aren't.
David Ferris 1
I am all for privatizing the whole system but don't argue that the travelling public does not pay their own way through the outrageous ticket taxes and landing fees that are part of the price they pay to fly. If the government were not so inefficient this would be way more than enough to fund the system, build new airports and fund upgrades.


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