The says the continuing failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a reauthorization bill is undermining confidence in the administration’s ability to execute the Next Generation air traffic modernization plan.
Pressing for immediate action, FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta says the hiatus “creates a climate of uncertainty.” The FAA is in its fourth year of operating under temporary funding, with Congress having passed more than 20 extensions in lieu of a full reauthorization bill.
The current operating authority expires on Jan. 31. “We need a reauthorization bill to give tax payers and the traveling public the air traffic system it deserves. But there’s not much time. There are only six legislative days this month to get this important work accomplished,” says Huerta.
Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ New Horizons forum in Nashville, Tenn., Huerta adds the smooth transition to NextGen is pivotal to the U.S. economy. Civil aviation currently contributes $1.3 trillion and generates more than 10 million jobs and “NextGen is vital to protecting these numbers.”
To reinforce credibility in its plans among financially strapped airlines, the FAA is also continuing to fast-track implementation of NextGen improvements. “We are ensuring we are able to deliver the benefits to the user more quickly,” says Huerta.
“There is a great deal of skepticism in the airlines about investing enough in new equipment and not seeing benefits quickly enough. The benefits need to be real and believable to justify the investment,” he adds.
Huerta was at the AIAA meeting a day after the FAA inaugurated an initial set of performance-based navigation procedures and descents in Houston. “We had our version of a ground-breaking of this project. It’s forecast to save millions of dollars in fuel and will be complete within two years,” says Huerta. To speed up implementation of the new procedures, the FAA is conducting environmental impact studies concurrently with the design process.
The FAA, as with other aerospace concerns, is also facing a looming workforce crisis. “We’re going from baby boomers and generation X-ers to millenials in air traffic control.” A wave of controllers hired after the 1981 strike is “getting ready to retire. Some 18% of air traffic controllers are eligible to retire, and we will need around 1,000 new controllers per year for the next 10 years,” says Huerta.
The issue is even more acute for air safety inspectors, close to 50% of whom will be close to retirement in the next five years.