NextGen: Sorely Needed But Risky

The day after the FAA released its new forecast indicating U.S. airlines will carry a billion passengers annually by 2021, the DOT inspector general told a congressional subcommittee that schedule delays and cost overruns of a crucial tool may delay it.

The Federal Aviation Administration produces an annual forecast of air travel for the ensuing 20 years. FAA's forecast for 2011-2031, released Feb. 15, predicts air travel will more than double during that period: U.S. airlines will carry a billion passengers annually by 2021, two years earlier than previously estimated, the forecast says. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood responded by saying the predicted growth shows why the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is sorely needed.

The next day, DOT's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, told a congressional subcommittee that schedule delays and cost overruns of a crucial tool may delay NextGen, which he said has been described by the FAA itself as one of the most complex systems ever developed by the federal government.

The tool is the $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program, which will process en route flight data. ERAM is "fundamental" to achieving the mid- and long-term benefits foreseen for NextGen, but testing at initial operating sites in Salt Lake City and Seattle "revealed significant software-related problems that have pushed schedules well beyond original completion dates and increased cost estimates by hundreds of millions of dollars," Scovel said, according to the text of his remarks.

Three of five NextGen technologies for changing the way air traffic is managed must integrate with ERAM, he added.

Scovel also discussed a lack of coordination between FAA and partner agencies, including NOAA in the Commerce Department. FAA and Commerce haven't agreed on how to synchronize national applications of observed, forecast, and disseminated weather data, which could delay the NextGen weather data system beyond its planned 2013 completion date, he said. And he said FAA has not developed a cross-agency plan to identify and address NextGen human factors issues -- such as how highly automated systems will affect its air traffic controllers.

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