The FAA appears to be on the verge of a second “reset” of its NextGen airspace modernization plan, based on a fresh set of recommendations to be delivered on Sept. 19 by the RTCA's NextGen Advisory Committee.

An earlier reprioritization came in 2010, when a government and industry group under the auspices of RTCA's Task Force 5 delivered 32 consensus recommendations for how the FAA could improve its NextGen program in the near-term (3-5 years). This advice was incorporated into the safety agency's plans. Included were incentives to allow airlines to reap more operational use from technology already installed on their aircraft as a quid pro quo for making further investments in communications, navigation and surveillance equipment that will be required to transition to a satellite-based National Airspace System by 2025.

Now, the FAA has asked RTCA to take a second look. The move could open the door to reforms being sought by government watchdogs and key congressmen who have been critical of program delays and want to restructure the NextGen, despite FAA assurances that all is on track.

“We're back to the same place—what are our priorities?” asks Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the Government Accountability Office, of the FAA's request of RTCA. “[Task Force 5 recommendations] were logical and fundamental to us. And now we're talking about what else might need to be changed.”

Dillingham says, “conversations are starting to be held in a lot of different rooms” in Washington regarding the possibility of rescinding the FAA's lead role in airspace modernization.

House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), could play a key role in a recasting of the FAA's responsibility.

“Congress has been very supportive of NextGen, with multibillion investments in recent years,” says Holly Woodruff Lyons, staff director and senior counsel for LoBiondo's committee. “What are they seeing as a result?”

She says the congressman wants to reassess the situation and is seeking public input, particularly in advance of the next FAA multiyear budget authorization bill, which will be crafted in 2015. “Members of Congress hear from people, and people will be candid,” says Woodruff Lyons. LoBiondo is hearing that “some transformational programs are not transformational, the FAA will not make the hard decisions and that no one can agree on what NextGen is,” she explains.

Though Congress has not yet appropriated the FAA's budget for next year, the agency's facilities and equipment line, which predominately funds NextGen, took a $637 million cut this year and could face a similar reduction next year under the sequestration law.

The FAA has pledged to move forward with NextGen, but within the constraints of its budget, hence the RTCA request as well as a redistribution effort underway within the agency. Chris Metts, vice president of program management at the FAA, says the project will “protect the integrity” of NextGen and of certain replacement programs for the National Airspace System. That will likely mean keeping ADS-B, data communications projects and air traffic control modernization platforms, such as en route automation, in place, while potentially cutting weather programs, automation and NextGen facilities, says Matthew Hampton, Transportation Department deputy assistant inspector general for aviation and special programs.

RTCA's new recommendations will probably be similar to its first set in terms of “delivering benefits from what's already been invested,” says Margaret Jenny, president of the government and industry group that sets standards and makes recommendations to the FAA. But, if the FAA is forced to delay or cancel portions of the project, RTCA will provide a method for prioritizing, she adds.

Jenny notes that an RTCA NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) subgroup started in July with a list of 32 modernization capabilities and developed an evaluation process that was “defensible and transparent.”

Included with the list are likely to be capabilities that demonstrate near-term benefits of NextGen, as well as five items “we absolutely must fund going forward in this type of budget environment,” says Dan Elwell, senior vice president of safety, security and operations with Airlines for America, and a member of the NAC subgroup. “So far, what I see in that group is very encouraging for the airlines because it really does validate the concept of getting the early returns—the benefits and momentum from what we have today.”