Air-Traffic Upgrade Harmed by U.S. Budget Cuts: FAA Chief

The U.S. switch to satellite-based air-traffic control systems known as NextGen would be put in jeopardy if a House budget proposal becomes law, an aviation regulator and a government watchdog told a panel of lawmakers.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has passed a proposed 2014 budget for the Federal Aviation Administration that would force the agency to delay NextGen funding to keep the current system operating, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a House aviation subcommittee hearing today.

“Our understanding is at those funding levels, the agency would be required to constrain its efforts greatly in regards to NextGen,” Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, said at the hearing.

The comments provided the first indication of how President Barack Obama’s administration views the House plan for the FAA. The proposal would provide the lowest funding for FAA facilities and equipment since 2000, Huerta said. A Senate budget proposal provides more money.

The FAA budget passed by the House Appropriations Committee last month calls for spending $756 million less than the agency’s current $16 billion level, according to the committee’s website. It would cut more than $100 million beyond the level required this year under automatic cuts known as sequestration, according to the committee.

Sequester Cuts

Sequestration cuts imposed this year have already stalled improvements to flight routes in some large U.S. metro areas, part of the $42 billion NextGen plan, Huerta and Scovel told the committee.

Work on that NextGen component, known as the Metroplex initiative, has been pushed back due to the forced cuts, Scovel said.

“The sequester and future funding unpredictability requires the FAA to make sizable budget cuts that affect our operations and our future,” Huerta said.

While Congress and Obama completed legislation April 27 to stave off furloughs of air-traffic controllers, which had triggered flight delays, today’s testimony today showed the agency has cut in other areas.

The Metroplex program, designed to bring improvements to some of the U.S.’s most delayed airports, is an early step in the decades-long program to modernize the air-traffic system. The FAA is developing more efficient routes for airlines using satellite technology, which will save fuel and allow more flights, according to the agency.

GPS Tracking

Huerta said a lack of predictable long-term funding had hurt the agency’s ability to plan for NextGen, which will replace radar with global-positioning tracking of planes.

“While we are grateful that Congress passed budgetary flexibility for FAA to provide for a temporary solution to the FAA furloughs, this stop-gap measure does not end the ongoing challenges the sequester presents,” he said.

The FAA was required to cut $637 million by Sept. 30 from its $16 billion budget under sequestration. Congress approved the use of $253 million in funds intended for airport construction to allow the agency to avoid having to require its employees to take unpaid days off.

Scovel told the committee that the FAA’s NextGen efforts were also being slowed by the agency’s lack of planning and technology programs that have been delayed.

At six busy airports -- including New York’s LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International and John F. Kennedy International - - only 3 percent of eligible flights are making use of new precision-flight routes, Scovel said.

It’s been difficult for controllers to assign aircraft the new routes when they are mixed in with planes that aren’t equipped to fly them, he said. In some cases, controllers need new technology before they can clear planes to fly the routes, he said.

In some cases, airlines have grown frustrated that they paid to install equipment on their planes that they can’t use, Scovel said.