National Airspace System:

FAA's Approach to Its New Communications System Appears Prudent, but Challenges Remain

GAO-02-710: Published: Jul 15, 2002. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2002.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides air-ground voice and data communications for pilots and air traffic controllers to safely coordinate all flight operations, ground movement of aircraft at airports, and in-flight separation distances between aircraft. However, the anticipated growth in air traffic, coupled with FAA's efforts to reduce air traffic delays and introduce new air traffic services, will create a demand for additional channels of voice communications that FAA's current system cannot provide. FAA and the aviation industry agree that the existing communications system, even with enhancements, cannot meet aviation's expanding need for communications. To ensure that the technology it wants to use for Next Generation Air/Ground Communications (NEXCOM) will meet its future needs, FAA, in collaboration with the aviation industry, conducted a comparative analysis of numerous technologies, to assess each one's ability to meet technical requirements, minimize program risk, and meet the agency's schedule. However, before making a final decision on the technology for NEXCOM, FAA will need to efficiently address three major issues: whether the preferred technology is technically sound and will operate as intended, if the preferred technology and the equipment it requires can be certified as safe for use in the National Airspace System, and whether it is cost effective for users and the agency.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To make the most informed decision in selecting the technology for NEXCOM and continue to receive the support from the aviation community, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to assess whether the requirements for voice and data communications have changed and the potential impact of emerging technologies on the Very High Frequency Digital Link Mode 3's useful life as part of its cost-effectiveness analysis of NEXCOM.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: After undertaking an assessment of NEXCOM, FAA in 2005 made significant changes to the program. FAA rebaselined the program as NEXCOM-1A and moved forward with deployment of only the radio part of the system for sustaining purposes. FAA decided not to go forward with VDL-3 because FAA has changed its requirements for voice and data communications going forward. FAA believes that its current air/ground infrastructure will not support anticipated traffic growth past 2020 and FAA is now working to develop the vision for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The NextGen vision entails data communications between aircraft and air traffic management to make the operational shift from workload-intensive tactical control to automation-assisted strategic traffic management. Fiscal year 2008 funding has been requested to initiate a new Data Communications program under NextGen. This program includes both the development of automation enhancements for air traffic control message generation and exchange (hardware and software), as well as the communications link carrying data between the aircraft and the ground. The Data Communications program will not include any use of VDL-3.

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