Op-Ed: The Problems At The FAA Begin Way Outside The FAA

FAA building
FAA Headquarters, Washington DC
Credit: Mark Nensel/Aviation Week

In a Dec. 29, 2022, letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Robert Jordan, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote, “I recognize that Southwest’s employees, from customer service agents to ground staff to flight crews, are working extremely hard, under trying circumstances, to help the airline return to normalcy. These frontline employees are not to blame for mistakes at the leadership level.” 

The same comment can be made about the hard-working frontline and management employees of the FAA regarding the collapse of its Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system on Jan. 11 that grounded all flights into and within the U.S. for several hours. This collapse was decades in the making.

The NOTAM system (originally named “Notice to Air Men” and then renamed to be more inclusive) has been around since the 1980s. It provides more up-to-the-moment updates to pilots of information that is generally found in other places but may not be current. For example, pilots have loose-leaf binders (now generally digital on tablets) describing airports where they may land. A NOTAM would be issued if a runway were out of service or if there were construction that affected the normal use of the airstrip. Before a pilot departed for an airport, the pilot would check for NOTAMs related to the destination airport as well as any alternate airport. The mere existence of a NOTAM system as opposed to a system of imbedded updates in digital airport descriptions (like what is done when a newspaper article is updated today) indicates how far behind state-of-the-art the system has become.

The last time the NOTAM system was completely revamped was in 1999, as part of the FAA’s Y2K readiness program. Plans have been underway to revamp the NOTAM system, although not fundamentally to change its structure, since 2016, when the FAA entered into a NOTAM modernization contract. Its completion date is uncertain, as are most technology refresh contracts.  Because the FAA experiences unrelenting budget pressure, it is forced into a triage process in which it must decide not just which systems need to be updated, but which systems will do the most damage if they go down because they are not updated. This means that programs to bring on new technology tend to be very large because they are very overdue. Because these programs are not mere incremental improvements and are long in coming about, there is more uncertainty about what the requirements will actually be and how extensively the capability will need to be re-engineered. Budget changes and government shut-downs add even more uncertainty. Cost and schedule overruns are commonplace, and the most surprising aspect of the overruns is that people are surprised when they occur. Oftentimes, critical components of new systems are out of date when delivered.  

The fiscal 2023 budget, which provides funding until Sept. 30, 2023, became law on Dec. 29, 2022, and provides for $11.1 billion to fund the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), which operates the National Airspace System (of which the NOTAM system is a component) and the NextGen organization, which develops new air traffic control technology. Critically, this is not a single lump of money handed over to the ATO to use as it sees fit. The money comes in many parcels, but most importantly, the $10.6 billion is divided between $8.8 billion for operations and $2.3 billion for facilities and equipment (F&E). It is out of the F&E budget that funding comes for construction of the control towers you see at airports as well as the more technologically intensive enroute and terminal approach facilities. F&E also funds new systems development, such as the new NOTAM system that is in the works.

Perennial Underfunding

Many of the FAA’s most critical facilities are more than 50 years old. Operationally essential technologies are running on microprocessors manufactured twenty years ago, and air traffic control areas are regularly shut down because of staff shortages. These outcomes are not because the FAA is monumentally incompetent. They occur because the FAA is perennially and woefully underfunded and subjected to a budget process that reduces the utility of the funding the FAA does receive. The December travails of Southwest Airlines would be an everyday occurrence if its capital allocation process were as starved and unpredictable as the FAA’s.

When Congress appropriates less funding for the FAA than is needed to run a fully-staffed, safe and efficient operation, the FAA has some tools at its disposal, but they can sometimes make the situation even worse. Given a choice between safety and efficiency, the FAA will always choose safety, which means that they will maximize the funds available for the operation. Because the FAA cannot on its own initiative move funds between its operations budget and the F&E budget, it keeps new systems running out of the F&E budget long after they are fully operational in order to preserve more funds in the safety-critical operations budget. While definitely the right choice for the airspace system, this practice reduces funds in the F&E budget that Congress and the Office of Management and Budget had really thought would be available for new systems development—like a new NOTAM system. Simply put, when Congress provides inadequate funding for the operation, the FAA protects the operation by tapping the F&E budget in a way Congress never intended. Through the process of keeping programs in development long after they are mature, the FAA has money to run a safe operation, but no money to fund efficiency-producing new systems.  This is what you have to do when you don’t have enough money to make ends meet.

All this is made worse by the frequent shutdowns and threatened shutdowns of the Federal government. Every time a shutdown looms, the FAA is compelled to put its contractors on hold. Like preparing to take a power plant off-line, a lot has to be done to get ready even if the shutdown never occurs, and then there is the recovery once the shutdown or threat of shutdown is over. As a case in point, during the government shutdown of non-essential operations from Dec. 22, 2018, until Jan. 25, 2019, the FAA had to stop work on the massive project of updating the technology that controllers use to guide airplanes on approach or recently departed. The five-week shutdown cost the program months in delay and tens of millions of dollars in increased cost, which came out of the F&E budget and simply reduced the budget headroom for other new technology, such as the replacement of the NOTAM system that failed.

Understanding the challenge the FAA faces is further complicated by the existence of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, into which is paid all of the ticket taxes we pay for our flights and the aviation fuel taxes the airlines pay. Many people think this fund constitutes an adequate and ready source of funding for the FAA. In fact, the Trust Fund is little more than a ledger entry in the Federal budget. Getting money out of it to fund FAA operations and system development takes an act of Congress—a budget appropriation. The FAA is not able to tap the Trust Fund apart from the detailed appropriation it receives from Congress. Money that comes out of the Trust Fund is a part of the overall Federal budget level which is so hotly debated and often held up because of Congressional disputes that have nothing to do with the amount of money the government spends and certainly nothing to do with the amount of money the FAA needs to run the operation—or the amount of money that gets deposited in the Trust Fund. It is not an exaggeration to say that new systems development like a replacement NOTAM system are held up because of culture-war debates that have nothing to do with flying to see grandmom.

The FAA’s long-term inability to deliver a modern air traffic control system is not an insoluble problem. There are solutions that will lessen the burdens under which the FAA must operate and bring the nation’s critical air traffic control system closer to adequate, stable and predictable funding. But, like Secretary Buttigieg said about Southwest, it will require better performance at the leadership level of the U.S. Transportation Department. 

David Grizzle was at the FAA from 2009-2013 and served as Chief Counsel, Acting Deputy Administrator and Chief Operating Officer. The Chief Operating Officer is the head of the air traffic control system and shares responsibility with the Assistant Administrator for NextGen for system development at the FAA.