Integration of Current Implementation Efforts with Long-term Planning for the Next Generation Air Transportation System

GAO-11-132R: Published: Nov 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Dec 1, 2010.

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Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the lead implementer and planner for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)--an ambitious, multiyear, multibillion-dollar overhaul of systems, procedures, aircraft performance capabilities, and supporting infrastructure that will create an air transportation system that uses satellite-based surveillance and navigation and network-centric operations. NextGen was designed as an interagency effort to leverage expertise and funding throughout the federal government. The Senior Policy Committee--the overall governing body for NextGen, chaired by the Secretary of Transportation--consists ocabinet-level officials from each of the partner agencies. The initial planning for NextGen, which began with Vision 100 in 2003 and was carried out by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) within FAA, focused on improvements to the air transportation system that would be implemented through 2025. JPDO produced three key planning documents--a Concept of Operations, a NextGen Enterprise Architecture, and an Integrated Work Plan (IWP). Recently, FAA has shifted its focus from the longer term (i.e., beyond 2018) and emphasized improvements that can be implemented in the near term and midterm (2010 through 2018). The shift responds, in part, to concerns expressed by stakeholders and Members of Congress about the lack of progress in FAA's implementation of NextGen, which they view as reminiscent of the schedule delays and other issues that plagued FAA's previous air traffic control modernization efforts. This shift is embodied in FAA's 2010 NextGen Implementation Plan, which responds to priorities put forward by stakeholders for NextGen implementation by the NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force (the Task Force).

FAA has generally identified the NextGen capabilities that it plans to implement in the near term to midterm, through 2018. These capabilities are laid out in the 2010 NextGen Implementation Plan, which feeds into FAA's overall national airspace system Enterprise Architecture, which, in turn, is aligned with JPDO's NextGen Enterprise Architecture. Supporting the NextGen Implementation Plan are two more detailed plans--Segment A, which defines detailed activities through 2015, and Segment B, which defines NextGen capabilities through 2018. These two plans detail the specific actions that must take place to implement the identified capabilities. According to FAA, Segment A has been developed, while Segment B is expected to be completed over the next 12 to 18 months. These plans are not made publicly available, but FAA plans to include a description of Segment A in its 2011 NextGen Implementation Plan. In addition, these two plans reflect FAA's responses to recommendations from industry and other stakeholders, developed by the Task Force, which was formed at the request of FAA and included representation from the four major aviation operating communities--airlines, business aviation, general aviation, and the military--as well as participation from air traffic controllers, airports, avionics and aircraft manufacturers, and other key stakeholders. Thus, the Task Force's recommendations represent a consensus view from industry on how to move forward with NextGen. The Task Force recommended that FAA implement those capabilities that the industry identified as maximizing benefits and facilitating a business case for industry investment across five key areas--surface operations, runway access, congestion relief in metropolitan areas, cruise operations, and access to certain airspace--and two crosscutting areas--data communication applications and integrated air traffic management. In developing the 2010 NextGen Implementation Plan and its supporting documents, FAA has continued to work with the Task Force to further refine the recommended actions and priorities. While FAA has taken a number of actions to respond to the Task Force recommendations and integrate those recommendations in its plans, some gaps remain in FAA's response. In an August 2010 meeting of the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee, the Chairman recommended that FAA address remaining gaps between the Task Force recommendations and the responses reflected in the NextGen Implementation Plan and publish an updated plan or a document that will detail the changes FAA will make to its plans to address these gaps. FAA directed RTCA to create a new advisory committee for NextGen--the NextGen Advisory Committee--that includes senior industry participants. We recently recommended to FAA that it work with industry and other stakeholders to develop outcome-based performance metrics and goals for NextGen broadly and for specific NextGen portfolios, programs, and capabilities and share them with the Congress. We recommended that FAA develop a timeline and action plan to agree with stakeholders on a list of specific goals and outcome-based performance metrics for NextGen. The Task Force also made related recommendations for the development of performance metrics and made recommendations specific to FAA's approach to developing performance-based navigational procedures. FAA has recently taken several actions that begin to respond to these recommendations and areas of concern. For example, in response to the Task Force, FAA is creating teams that will include FAA and industry to evaluate performance-based navigation procedures at individual airports. FAA has created two such prototype teams in Dallas and Washington, D.C. In addition, the new NextGen Advisory Committee has been tasked with collaborating with FAA on establishing high-level performance measures for NextGen.

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