NextGen Air Transportation System:

FAA Has Made Some Progress in Midterm Implementation, but Ongoing Challenges Limit Expected Benefits

GAO-13-264: Published: Apr 8, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 8, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is pursuing key operational improvements to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the "midterm," which is 2013 through 2018. These improvements focus on establishing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures at key airports, but benefits could be limited in the midterm. PBN uses satellite-based guidance to improve air-traffic control routes (known as "procedures"). These procedures can deliver benefits to airlines, such as fuel savings and increased efficiency, particularly in congested airspace. To deliver benefits more quickly, FAA made trade-offs in selecting sites and in the scope of proposed improvements. For example, FAA is not implementing procedures that will trigger lengthy environmental reviews. These trade-offs, with which airlines and other stakeholders generally agree, will likely limit benefits from these PBN initiatives early in the midterm. FAA has also made some progress in other key operational improvement areas, such as upgrading traffic management systems and revising standards to improve aircraft flow in congested airspace. However, FAA has not fully integrated implementation of all of its operational improvement efforts at airports. Because of the interdependency of improvements, their limited integration could also limit benefits in the midterm.

FAA has efforts under way to help overcome overarching obstacles to NextGen implementation identified by an advisory task force, but challenges remain, and many of these efforts are scheduled to take a number of years. FAA efforts include, for example, a new process for focused and concise environmental reviews for some proposed actions (e.g., new procedures), where a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts is limited to only those categories involving potentially significant impacts, such as increased noise or emissions. Some of these efforts do not, however, fully address previously identified obstacles. FAA has not fully addressed obstacles to selecting new PBN procedures that will best relieve congestion and improve efficiency, for example. FAA continues to rely on requests for new procedures from airlines and other stakeholders. This reliance may or may not result in procedures that maximize benefits to the national airspace system. Not addressing remaining challenges could delay NextGen implementation and limit potential benefits.

FAA has made progress in developing NextGen performance metrics, but according to key stakeholders, FAA currently provides limited data to demonstrate its progress in implementing midterm improvements and the associated benefits. FAA is in the process of harmonizing performance metrics across all agency programs to ensure that metrics align with agency targets and goals. However, information is incomplete on the midterm improvements and their benefits at selected airports, and airlines and others lack access to needed information to make fully informed investment decisions. FAA has developed a website to report on NextGen implementation, but published information is not fully tied to FAA's implementation goals. FAA's plans also provide limited information about future implementation, such as locations and expected benefits. Better performance and planning information would provide airlines with a stronger basis for making decisions to invest an estimated $6.6 billion on NextGen technology through 2018.

Why GAO Did This Study

FAA, collaborating with other federal agencies and the aviation industry, is implementing NextGen, an advanced technology air-traffic management system that FAA anticipates will replace the current ground-radar-based system. At an expected cost of $18 billion through 2018, NextGen is expected to enhance safety, increase capacity, and reduce congestion in the national airspace system. To deliver some of these benefits in the midterm, FAA is implementing operational improvements using available technologies. Delivering midterm benefits could build support for future industry investments, but a task force identified obstacles, such as FAA's lengthy approval processes.

GAO was asked to review FAA's midterm NextGen efforts. GAO examined (1) key operational improvements FAA is pursuing through 2018, (2) the extent to which FAA is addressing known obstacles to the implementation of NextGen operational improvements, and (3) the extent to which FAA is measuring and demonstrating midterm benefits. GAO reviewed FAA documents, as well as the task force's recommendations to FAA, and interviewed FAA and airport officials and aviation experts.

What GAO Recommends

FAA should, among other things, better integrate NextGen efforts; develop processes for selecting new PBN procedures; and ensure that stakeholders have needed information on NextGen progress to facilitate investment decisions. DOT did not agree or disagree with GAO's recommendations, but provided technical comments.

For more information, contact Gerald L. Dillingham at (202) 512-2834 or dillinghamg@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that FAA is pursuing key operational improvements to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the "midterm," which is 2013 through 2018. These improvements focus on establishing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures at key airports, but benefits could be limited in the midterm. PBN uses satellite-based guidance to improve air-traffic control routes (known as "procedures"). These procedures can deliver benefits to airlines, such as fuel savings and increased efficiency, particularly in congested airspace. Although FAA's PBN efforts have the potential to deliver midterm efficiency and environmental benefits, the benefits obtained will greatly depend on the extent to which the new procedures are used. In the past, industry stakeholders, especially airlines, had expressed concerns that some published PBN procedures have not provided sufficient benefits. However, FAA did not have a system to track the use of PBN procedures, and was unable to provide information on the extent to which existing procedures were either unused or were used on a limited basis. At that time, there were no automatic data collection systems to track the use of procedures, either on the aircraft flying the routes or at the air-traffic control facilities managing those aircraft. Key stakeholders, such as airlines and equipment manufacturers expressed the need for timely and reliable information about future anticipated benefits from technological and equipage investments that FAA deems necessary to take advantage of the NextGen infrastructure. Without a way to systematically measure the use of particular procedures, the agency may not recognize routes that need to be revised to ensure that airlines are able to get expected benefits such as reduced fuel use or improved access in bad weather. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA work with airlines and other users to develop and implement a system to systematically track the use of existing PBN procedures. In May 2017, GAO confirmed that that FAA had developed and implemented a PBN assessment tool--the PBN dashboard--to enable FAA to assess PBN usage. The PBN dashboard provides the number of PBN operations at selected airports and the use of individual PBN procedures, as well as information about use by individual carriers and with different aircraft equipage levels. Publicly available on FAA's website, the PBN dashboard provides implementation and usage statistics for all major airports in the National Airspace System with published PBN procedures. The data are captured on a periodic basis and displayed in an easy to interpret format for interested parties. As a result, FAA now has the information it needs to demonstrate the value of PBN technologies and any resulting benefits to airlines and other stakeholders, as well as allow FAA to identify routes that need to be revised to increase their use.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NextGen operational improvements are fully implemented in the midterm, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with airlines and other users to develop and implement a system to systematically track the use of existing PBN procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At an expected cost of $18 billion through 2018, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is expected to enhance safety, increase capacity, and reduce congestion in the national airspace system. In 2013, GAO reported that FAA is pursuing key operational improvements to implement NextGen in the "midterm," which is 2013 through 2018. These improvements focus on establishing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures at key airports, but benefits could be limited in the midterm. PBN uses satellite-based guidance to improve air-traffic control routes (known as "procedures"). These procedures can deliver benefits to airlines, such as fuel savings and increased efficiency, particularly in congested airspace. Although FAA's PBN efforts have the potential to deliver midterm efficiency and environmental benefits, the benefits obtained will greatly depend on the extent to which the new procedures are used. In the past, industry stakeholders, especially airlines, had expressed concerns that some published PBN procedures have not provided sufficient benefits. FAA has efforts under way to help overcome overarching obstacles to NextGen implementation identified by an advisory task force, but challenges remain, and many of these efforts are scheduled to take a number of years. FAA efforts include, for example, a new process for focused and concise environmental reviews for some proposed actions (e.g., new procedures), where a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts is limited to only those categories involving potentially significant impacts, such as increased noise or emissions. Some of these efforts do not, however, fully address previously identified obstacles. FAA has not fully addressed obstacles to selecting new PBN procedures that will best relieve congestion and improve efficiency, for example. FAA continued to rely on requests for new procedures from airlines and other stakeholders. This reliance may or may not result in procedures that maximize benefits to the national airspace system. Not addressing remaining challenges could delay NextGen implementation and limit potential benefits. Furthermore, FAA did not assess requests received to determine whether the requested route or type of procedure maximizes potential benefits. Since requestors, such as airlines, may have their own reasons for requesting routes at certain locations or using specific technologies, their requests may not correspond with NextGen goals or result in the most efficient use of resources for PBN implementation or vis-a-vis the needs of other users. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA develop processes to proactively identify new PBN procedures for the NAS, based on NextGen goals and targets, and evaluate external requests so that FAA can select appropriate solutions. In April 2017 GAO confirmed that FAA in 2016 issued an order that provides a standardized Performance Base Navigation Implementation Process. This process is designed to be used by work groups to design, develop, and implement PBN procedures and/or routes that, upon effective establishment, meet agreed-upon project goals. According to the order, the work group identifies and documents expected benefits for the project. Expected benefits are to be measurable rather than just general statements. Possible benefits may include, increased departure efficiency, increased air traffic flow/capacity, operational independence between traffic flows, increased access to airspace or airports, and environmental improvements. These benefits are reflective of some of the broad goals for NextGen such as increasing system capacity. As a result of the Performance Base Navigation Implementation Process, FAA should be in a better position to identify routes that can maximize benefits for the National Airspace System.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NextGen operational improvements are fully implemented in the midterm, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop processes to proactively identify new PBN procedures for the national airspace system (NAS), based on NextGen goals and targets, and evaluate external requests so that FAA can select appropriate solutions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that FAA was pursuing key operational improvements to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the midterm, which is 2013 through 2018. These improvements focus on establishing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures at key airports, but benefits could be limited in the midterm. PBN uses satellite-based guidance to improve air-traffic control routes (known as procedures). These procedures can deliver benefits to airlines, such as fuel savings and increased efficiency, particularly in congested airspace. FAA had also made some progress in other key operational improvement areas, such as upgrading traffic management systems, and revising standards to improve aircraft flow in congested airspace. However, FAA had not fully integrated implementation of all of its operational improvement efforts at major airports and multi-airport airspaces, known as metroplexes. Because of the interdependency of improvements, their limited integration could also limit benefits in the midterm. Furthermore, by not including the identification of unused flight routes for decommissioning, FAA could be missing an opportunity to leverage the expertise of participating stakeholders. Decommissioning unused or little-used conventional, non-PBN procedures could allow FAA to make better use of its resources by reducing maintenance costs. Therefore, GAO recommended FAA require consideration of other key operational improvements in planning for NextGen improvements, including PBN projects at metroplexes, as well as the identification of unused flight routes for decommissioning. In April 2017, GAO confirmed that FAA has incorporated a Metroplex Implementation Support Team (MIST) of spacing and sequencing tool experts to optimize Time Based Flow Management adaptation in support of Metroplex implementation activities. According to FAA, MIST ensures systems, tools, procedures, and training are available to operationally integrate and achieve maximum efficiency and benefits from airspace redesign and procedures. MIST is to ensure the interoperability with other emerging, spacing and sequencing tools, such as Ground-based Interval Management Spacing (GIM-S) and Integrated Departure Arrival Capability (IDAC ). FAA has also developed and implemented a PBN assessment tool, the PBN dashboard, to enable FAA to assess PBN capabilities. The PBN dashboard provides information that includes use of PBN operations by carriers. Publically available on FAA's website, the PBN dashboard provides implementation and usage statistics for all major airports in the National Airspace System with published PBN procedures. The data are captured on a periodic basis and displayed in an easy to interpret format for interested parties . According to FAA, dashboard information is to be used for the initial selection of decommissioning-eligible routes. The routes will then be assessed with non-quantitative measures such as providing improved access and overall National Airspace System benefits to arrive at final disposition decisions. By integrating PBN and other operational improvement efforts, and using PBN dashboard data to identify underused fight routes, FAA is in a better position to increase airspace efficiency in key metroplexes.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NextGen operational improvements are fully implemented in the midterm, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to require consideration of other key operational improvements in planning for NextGen improvements, including PBN projects at metroplexes such as Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM), as well as the identification of unused flight routes for decommissioning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that FAA is pursuing key operational improvements to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the midterm, which is 2013 through 2018. These improvements focus on establishing Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures at key airports, but benefits could be limited in the midterm. PBN uses satellite-based guidance to improve air-traffic control routes (known as procedures). These procedures can deliver benefits to airlines, such as fuel savings and increased efficiency, particularly in congested airspace. GAO had previously reported that the inclusion of airports in PBN procedure development and other projects can help address potentially adverse environmental often noise-related community impacts, since these entities often have primary responsibility for addressing community concerns and are likely more familiar than FAA with the airport's environmental impacts and the surrounding communities. FAA has made progress in recent years in ensuring the inclusion of stakeholders in NextGen efforts, especially air traffic controllers. Some airport officials, however, expressed concern that FAA had not fully involved them in current efforts or involved them too late in the process, although a representative of an airport advocacy organization noted that FAA has recently begun to involve airports more significantly in NextGen design and implementation efforts. However, FAA had not developed guidelines for the timely and consistent inclusion of these stakeholders. A collaborative approach that timely involves key stakeholders including the agency, airport officials, air traffic controllers, and airlines enables FAA to fully leverage the expertise of these stakeholders, helps identify the best possible solutions, and facilitates the implementation of those improvements. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA develop and implement guidelines for ensuring timely inclusion of appropriate stakeholders, including airport representatives, in the planning and implementation of NextGen improvement efforts. In June 2017, GAO confirmed that FAA had issued an updated Community Involvement Manual. The manual is designed to provide FAA personnel with an understanding of the value of community involvement and describes practices and effective techniques for community participation. The manual applies to FAA employees who are planning, conducting, or approving aviation actions, including airspace changes and new or amended flight procedures with potential environmental issues that raise concerns within a community. For projects in the airport vicinity, the manual states that FAA should reach out first to the affected airport. The manual notes that timely early and continuing coordination with airport management, elected officials, and community leaders helps inform the FAA of community characteristics and potential community concerns. As a result of developing this manual, FAA can better ensure stakeholder involvement to facilitate the implementation of NextGen Improvements.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NextGen operational improvements are fully implemented in the midterm, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement guidelines for ensuring timely inclusion of appropriate stakeholders, including airport representatives, in the planning and implementation of NextGen improvement efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that FAA had made progress in developing NextGen performance metrics, but according to key stakeholders, FAA provided limited data to demonstrate its progress in implementing midterm improvements and the associated benefits. FAA had begun to report on implementation progress and benefits at certain airports, but implementation and benefits information was incomplete. Key stakeholders, such as airlines and equipment manufacturers, continued to express the need for timely and reliable information about future anticipated benefits from technological and equipage investments that FAA deems necessary to take advantage of the NextGen infrastructure. According to RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), additional information was needed to understand potential direct costs, benefits, and return on investments that might be realized within approximately 3 years. FAA's 2012 NextGen Implementation Plan provided some examples of benefits that have been achieved, as well as projected benefits for planned improvements, from the implementation of NextGen capabilities 5and initiatives. While FAA plans included such examples, RTCA reported that available FAA plans did not include sufficient information for airlines making investment decisions, such as forecast benefits by either location or usage, or the proportion of the local fleet that is currently equipped. For example, RTCA noted that FAA's long-range implementation plans should provide information on the roll out of RNP procedures at specific airports. However, RTCA found that the plans lacked such information. Nor do FAA implementation plans identify criteria with which additional sites would be selected in the case of demonstration projects. Without greater certainty on when and where NextGen improvements are planned, airlines and others are unlikely to invest in the equipage that will help achieve the full benefits of NextGen implementation. FAA had estimated that total industry equipage could cost $6.6 billion through 2018. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA assure that NextGen planning documents provide stakeholders information on how and when operational improvements are expected to achieve NextGen goals and targets. In May 2017, GAO confirmed that FAA in its annual NextGen Implementation Plan is reporting information on the deployment of NextGen initiatives at specific locations. In the 2016 Plan, FAA reported on the status of PBN activities at 12 target metroplex sites across the country. For example, the plan indicates that implementation of new PBN flight paths and other PBN activities have been completed in the Houston Metroplex. The plan also provides information on the implementation status of other key operational improvements. For example, the plan provides the status of procedures for operations at closely space parallel runways at 9 target airports to enable more arrivals and departures and increase the efficiency and capacity of these airports and reduce delays. As a result of these actions, FAA is in a better position to provide the airlines with needed planning information that provides them with a strong basis for making decisions to invest an estimated $6.6 billion on NextGen technology through 2018.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NextGen operational improvements are fully implemented in the midterm, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to assure that NextGen planning documents provide stakeholders information on how and when operational improvements are expected to achieve NextGen goals and targets.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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