The House today passed its version of a bill that authorizes funding for the , smoothing the path of the Next Generation air traffic modernization program.
The Senate takes up the bill on Monday, and despite last-minute wrangling by unions over a labor provision in the bill, it is expected to pass.
For Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who leads the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation subcommittee, passing the bill with its NextGen provisions is long overdue and will finally enable planes as sophisticated as theto take full advantage of new developments in aviation.
“Smart planes are now going to have smart routes,” says Cantwell, in whose stateand have large presences.
To help NextGen along, the bill sets deadlines for the program, provides new methods of financing at a time when the government’s purse strings are tightening and sets up new oversight mechanisms. It creates a chief NextGen officer, position that can help shepherd the program’s disparate technologies along and remain accountable to the FAA and Capitol Hill.
In terms of deadlines, the bill mandates that the FAA establish Required Navigation Performance (RNP) and Required Area Navigation (RNAV) procedures for the top 35 airports by the end of 2015. The bill enables third parties to test and build descent approaches, but it will also require streamlining the environmental impact process to reach the bill’s goal, according to congressional aides and industry officials.
It requires the FAA to come up with a plan mandating that aircraft “operating in capacity-constrained airspace, at capacity-constrained airports, or in any other airspace deemed appropriate by the administrator” be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast In (ADS-B In) technology for tracking aircraft by 2020.
One of industry’s chief concerns about moving to NextGen has been funding.
With declining budgets and the potential for additional across-the-board cuts to government funding in 2013, those concerns are at an all-time high.
“It’s a good bill for NextGen, except for the funding,” says Dan Elwell of the Aerospace Industries Association. The bill contains some significant reductions to the FAA’s facilities and equipment account from previous estimates, he says.
But a Senate aide contends that funding for NextGen is lower than previous recommendations because technical problems with elements of the program have slowed development.
Still, the bill enables the FAA to work with private industry to ease government cash crunches. It opens the door to public-private partnerships and loan guarantees that have been proposed by companies such as Nexa Capital Partners.
“Anything that allows the sharing of risk, that allows partnership between government agencies and the operator is helpful,” Elwell says, adding that the language by itself won’t speed up the process of equipage. “If you have the financing, plus the FAA commitment to implement on time, that’s the key.”
And while the details are yet to be figured out on the margins, the bill as a package is winning support both in industry and on Capitol Hill.
“The bill’s overall focus on acceleration of NextGen technologies and streamlined certification processes will help expedite implementation of key programs like Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), Required Navigation Performance (RNP), data communications and other technologies which will reduce congestion and delays, save fuel and, most importantly, increase safety,” says Bobby Sturgell,’ senior VP for Washington operations.
The bill is especially helpful for Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), who represents the district where the FAA’s FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center is based. The bill provides $10.9 billion in its facilities and equipment accounts to accelerate Next Gen. And it enables the FAA to create a Center of Excellence for NextGen that would unite industry and academic experts at the technical center.
“This bill reaffirms the exceptional work being conducted at the Tech Center to modernize the nation’s antiquated air traffic control system and will ensure reliable funding for the next four years, so that substantial work on NextGen can be completed,” LoBiondo says.