(Washington, DC)  The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics today examined the status of the Next Generation Air Transportation System initiative (also known as NGATS or NextGen) and explored key issues related to the initiative and the federal interagency Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO).

The success of the NextGen programs is “important because it concerns the future of America’s air transportation system, and the question is whether we will have a system that will be able to meet the needs of our 21st century economy,” said Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO).  “I think we can all agree that we need to get this right for the health of our economy, the quality of life of our citizens, the safety of the flying public and our international competitiveness.” 

As is widely acknowledged, the current approach to managing U.S. air transportation is becoming increasingly inefficient and operationally obsolete.  Today’s National Airspace System (NAS) is near capacity and a threefold increase in air traffic is expected by 2025.  Current technologies and procedures will not provide the flexibility nor the scalability needed to meet the growing demand. “Hope and good intentions by themselves are not going to be sufficient to ensure success,” added Chairman Udall.  “We are going to need commitment, accountability and ultimately, effective performance by all involved…and I am troubled by indications that all may not be going as well as hoped with the NextGen effort.”

In 2003, Congress created the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) as part of Vision 100: Century of Flight Reauthorization Act. The JPDO is to plan for and coordinate, with federal and nonfederal stakeholders, a transformation from the current air traffic control system to the NextGen system by 2025.  NextGen (formerly called NGATS) is envisioned as a major redesign of the air transportation system that will entail precision satellite navigation; digital, networked communications; an integrated aviation weather system; layered, adaptive security and more.

Transforming the NAS by 2025 to accommodate a projected demand of three times the current demand for air transportation services, providing appropriate security and environmental safeguards, and doing these things seamlessly while the current system continues to operate will be a complex undertaking. 

As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “… given the staggering complexity of this ambitious effort to modernize and transform the air traffic control system over the next two decades, it will not be easy to move from planning to implementation.”

At today’s hearing, serious questions remained in the minds of Committee Members on the status of the program.  Chairman Udall pointed out that “when DOT and JPDO testified before this Subcommittee exactly a year ago, we were told that a Memorandum of Understanding defining the NextGen partner agencies roles and responsibilities would be finalized ‘within the next few weeks.’ One year later, it is clear that that did not happen – and still hasn’t happened.  At that same hearing, we were told that JPDO planned to release an Enterprise Architecture for NextGen in the summer of 2006.  That did not happen – and still hasn’t happened.”

Implementing the JPDO’s plans and products in the national airspace system in a timely manner will be critical to the success of the NextGen initiative.

“I recognize that developing and implementing the NextGen system are enormous challenges,” concluded Chairman Udall.  “However, we need to take a look both at where progress is being made, and equally importantly, where improvement is needed.”

JPDO has recently released a draft JPDO Concept of Operations for public comment, and the office indicates that in the next few months it will publish the NextGen Enterprise Architecture (originally intended to be ready for release last summer) and the Integrated Work Plan. 

The Committee will continue to follow the program’s progress.  For more information on this hearing, click here.