The FAA’s sequestration-related budget cuts will halth the agency’s transition at some facilities to the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program, a critical piece of the foundation for the NextGen air traffic control system, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general says.

For now, the FAA is making “considerable progress toward getting ERAM on track,” DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel told the Senate subcommittee that oversees aviation spending at an April 18 hearing. The FAA now is using the new system for processing flight data at 16 of the 20 planned sites, with an internal deadline to have all 20 up and running with the full use of ERAM by August 2014.

The transition and implementation of ERAM, however, involves collaborative work groups that include air traffic controllers. Under the sequestration-related cuts, which include FAA furloughs, those controllers are being pulled back to their home stations to minimize the furloughs’ impact on individual airports, Scovel and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta say.

At the hearing, Huerta acknowledged the pull-back could delay the final deployment of ERAM at some stations. But Scovel went further, and into more detail. The locations that already are using ERAM full-time will continue to do so, he says. But the FAA will halt the transition activity for five locations that still are making the transition from part-time to full-time use: Memphis, Cleveland, Washington, New York and Boston. It also will temporarily suspend plans to start the ERAM transition in Atlanta, Miami, Jacksonville and Fort Worth.

“Because of the ripple effect of suspending transition operations at these other nine centers, we can expect that into fiscal year 14, ERAM will similarly be hobbled,” Scovel says, although he immediately questioned his own use of the word “hobbled” and clarified: “It would not be, certainly couldn’t be as far along, as it would be had sequestration not impaired the agency’s ability to use controllers in these workgroups.”

While the FAA has set August 2014 as the “firm and fast deadline” for implementation of this initial phase of ERAM, Scovel cautioned Congress not to read too much into that.

“Whatever state ERAM is in in August 2014 will not be what was fully envisioned when ERAM was first contracted some years ago,” he says.

Apart from the effect of sequestration, Scovel says the FAA is spending about $12 million a month on the ERAM facilities and equipment portion of the contract, excluding NextGen efforts funded through the ERAM contract. “If the current contract burn rate does not decline significantly, the agency will need additional funds to complete this stage of the program,” he told the subcommittee.