The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) will improve airline safety and efficiency and make aviation more environmentally sound, officials say. But it will take years, maybe decades, to implement.
Its progress is coming in small increments.
The program's backbone is a transition from ground-based radar to satellite-based tracking of aircraft, known as ADS-B. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule requiring everyone who uses the busiest parts of domestic airspace to be using ADS-B by 2020. In the meantime, the federal contract for building the ground equipment for ADS-B has been awarded and the infrastructure will be in place by 2013, according to the FAA. The system is already online in much of Alaska and is being tested in four areas of the lower 48.
The president's proposed 2012 budget calls for $1.24 billion for NextGen, an increase of more than $370 million from 2010. But overall funding for the FAA is expected to be slashed by 20 percent for the next three years because of general budget constraints, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.
That report also said that some aspects of NextGen have been delayed, which has already resulted in cost overruns. As the government falls behind on funding and implementation, the airlines have little incentive to invest in technologies that will comply with the new system, the GAO said.
"That industry skepticism, which we have found lingers today, could delay the time when significant NextGen benefits—such as increased capacity and more direct, fuel-saving routing—are realized,” the GAO report says.
John Cox, a former airline pilot who is now an air safety consultant, said there is no question that NextGen has fallen behind schedule, but he blames the bureaucratic process more than the White House.
"So many different committees and groups working on it leads to the easiest decision being indecision, and I think that has mired it down,” Cox said. "The administration's doing what it can.”
As for restoring morale and improving working conditions for air traffic controllers, a spokesman for their union says relations with the FAA are greatly improved after years of acrimony under the Bush administration.
Shortly after Obama took office, talks began on a labor contract. It was signed in October 2009, said Doug Church, communications director for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"There was no other way to demonstrate to the workforce that they (the FAA) were committed to them other than to give them a contract,” Church said. "That had to happen first, and the FAA knew that, the DOT knew that, the president knew that.”
The contract, which addressed employee concerns including working conditions, staffing and placement of new hires, served as a foundation for a collaborative relationship between the FAA and workers that continues today, Church said.
There is now an alternative dispute resolution process for grievances that avoids expensive arbitration, Church said. Teams at each of the FAA's 300-plus facilities tackle issues such as outdated procedures and equipment, and professional standards have been given renewed attention. A program that lets controllers ride in the cockpit to learn about working "on the other side of the microphone,” which was suspended after 9/11, has been reinstated, he said.
Serious fatigue problems among controllers were already being addressed when headlines appeared in April 2011 about controllers falling asleep on the job, Church said. A work group had presented the FAA with a set of recommendations for addressing the problem.
The government is implementing the recommendations, Church said, which include making adjustments to time off between shifts, adjusting staffing on overnight shifts and identifying sleep apnea and other disorders in controllers.
We find Obama has made substantial progress on both parts of this promise. The relationship between the FAA and air traffic controllers has improved in tangible ways, and even though NextGen will take many years to fully implement, the FAA under Obama is bringing it closer to reality. Still, bureaucratic delays are hampering this massive program, so we rate this promise a Compromise.