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A Congressional hearing finds progress on the NextGen system lagging but generally on track.

If no news is good news, then the Federal Aviation Administration has had a very rough couple of years. Between Michelle Obama's plane aborting its landing and air-traffic controllers going all narcoleptic on the job and the administrator being arrested for drunk driving — well, there's been a lot of news there. By these standards, anything in the vicinity of not-terribly-bad news probably looks pretty good.

That's what the FAA got last week after a Congressional hearing about its most important project, the NextGen aviation system. After a February GAO report [PDF] found contracts for the system to be $4.2 billion over budget — again, lots of news there — the latest hearing suggested that NextGen faced implementation challenges but was essentially on track. When the worst headline slam you can give the FAA is "slow progress," that's an admission it's made some.

A successful NextGen system is critical to the future of intercity air travel in the United States. The purpose of the biggest aviation overhaul in American history is to prepare for the 42 percent increase in air travelers expected by 2025. NextGen will shift air control from an antiquated radar-based system to one that relies on GPS — a change that's supposed to increase route efficiency and, as a result, dramatically reduce delays (38 percent), fuel consumption (1.4 billion gallons) and carbon emissions (14 million metric tons).

Several NextGen initiatives are right on track. These include the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast program, a.k.a. the shift to GPS, a.k.a. the "backbone of NextGen," according to a brief of the hearing [PDF]. Simply put this program will give aircraft better control of their routes. Its completion remains on schedule for late 2014, Congressional witnesses report, but the FAA has been encouraged to create financial incentives that help struggling airlines adopt the equipment (presumably without raising baggage fees to $5,000 for the first bag).

The FAA has also had some moderate success implementing a NextGen initiative called Metroplex, whose purpose is to relieve airspace congestion and tarmac delays near large metropolitan airports. Metroplex offers perhaps the greatest near-term benefits of NextGen, and indeed the FAA has the system running or under study at 13 sites around the country. At the same time, the initiative is 15 months behind schedule and, to get back on track, has dropped eight metro areas from the effort, including high-traffic cities like New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle.

The agency has also struggled to keep pace with the En Route Automation Modernization program (E.R.A.M.), which will enhance software at key airspace centers that manage high-altitude traffic, ultimately helping pilots maneuver around things like bad weather. E.R.A.M. was delayed four years and exceeded its budget by $330 million — and could eclipse the $500 million overage mark, according to Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the Department of Transportation [PDF]. Still E.R.A.M. is now running (at least in part) in nine cities and the FAA seems to be on track to get it to all 20 major centers by 2014.

The biggest problem facing NextGen seems to be that airlines aren't buying into the navigational technologies yet. As Josh Lederman of the Associated Press explains, this equipment not only costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per plan, but it "doesn't start yielding full benefits until a critical mass of planes have the new technology, so nobody wants to go first." That said, there are encouraging signs. JetBlue recently announced it would use NextGen technology to take more efficient landing paths into J.F.K. Airport, and at the recent hearing, the company's CEO said [PDF] it will equip 35 Airbus jets with the new GPS system.

In his statement at the hearing, Gerald Dillingham of the GAO pointed out [PDF] a larger problem facing intercity air travel: airport capacity. While NextGen will make air traffic more navigable than it would be if left alone, the system will be limited in its effectiveness by the sheer physical size of some airports. Even if every NextGen initiative is implemented in good order, said Dillingham, 14 airports around the country, many of them very high-traffic places, still "may not be able to meet the projected increases in demand":

That's not great for the future of air travel in general, but it's not terribly negative for the FAA in particular, which is at least some kind of win.

Illustrations courtesy GAO. Top image: Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com

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