National Airspace System:
Improved Budgeting Could Help FAA Better Determine Future Operations and Maintenance Priorities
GAO-13-693: Published: Aug 22, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2013.
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What GAO Found
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made some progress in addressing key challenges as it begins the gradual transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). It has filled key leadership positions and developed tools to manage interdependent NextGen programs. FAA is working to address other identified challenges, including incentivizing aircraft operators to equip with NextGen technologies, identifying workforce roles under NextGen, and realigning and consolidating facilities. However, FAA has yet to make some decisions needed to move forward with these efforts. For example, FAA is evaluating realignment options to help realize efficiencies but has not yet identified which facilities will be consolidated or realigned.
FAA reports that operational availability of current air traffic control systems at the largest airports has exceeded 99 percent, and underlying data suggest increasing maintenance requirements for current systems and facilities, some of which may have to operate for many more years during the NextGen transition. For example, from fiscal years 2001 through 2012, planned, or scheduled, system outages doubled while unscheduled outages increased 45 percent, an increase due, in part, to the age and deteriorating condition of existing systems. FAA data on facilities and infrastructure condition, although limited, also suggest potentially increasing maintenance requirements. FAA is working to establish a new performance measure to publicly report on system condition and replace the operational availability measure, which was discontinued in 2012.
Recognizing that FAA's cost estimates for maintaining existing systems and facilities and implementing NextGen exceed anticipated funding levels, the agency is developing a plan to address its system and facilities maintenance issues, which it expects to complete by September 2013. In developing the plan, it recognizes that many unstaffed facilities, such as shelters and communication towers, face deteriorating conditions that can put employees maintaining these facilities at risk of injury. However, the process used to collect condition data does not facilitate an agency-wide priority assessment, as each location established its own priorities. Thus, FAA cannot target its limited resources on those projects in greatest need of repair and most critical to the national airspace system. FAA is also working to retire systems that are no longer needed as NextGen capabilities are deployed but will need to overcome challenges in securing stakeholder buy-in and funding.
FAA's budget planning does not fully account for future operations and maintenance needs and priorities of existing and NextGen systems. While FAA's capital plan identifies priorities based on 5-year funding projections, better data on FAA infrastructure could help prioritize competing resource demands of existing systems and facilities and NextGen deployment. FAA data on life-cycle operations and maintenance costs give some indication of future requirements, but FAA has not determined how these costs might be paid for, particularly if it has to maintain a growing number of existing systems as NextGen is deployed. FAA has identified improvements needed for its operations budget process and proposed to develop a 5-year operations plan that better links capital investments with future operations costs, but has yet to institute these improvements.
Why GAO Did This Study
Through the NextGen initiative, FAA plans to transform the current ground-based radar air-traffic control system to a system based on satellite navigation, automated position reporting, and digital communications. The NextGen transition will be a complex, multi-year, incremental process. Decisions affecting how long the transition will take and the number of existing systems that will remain in operation during the transition have implications for FAA's existing systems, workforce, facilities, and budget.
GAO was asked to continue monitoring the progress and challenges associated with the NextGen transition and implementation. In this report, GAO examined (1) FAA's progress in addressing key challenges affecting its ability to execute the NextGen transition; (2) the performance and condition of current air traffic control system and facilities; (3) FAA's efforts to address maintenance requirements of its current systems and facilities; and (4) the extent to which FAA has planned for the financial resources for sustaining existing systems and facilities and the NextGen transition. In doing so, GAO analyzed FAA system performance data and documents and interviewed FAA officials and aviation stakeholders.
What GAO Recommends
To improve FAA's efforts to manage the transition, GAO recommends that FAA develop a strategy to improve planning of its operations budget and ensure sufficient data are available to support these efforts. DOT did not agree or disagree with this recommendation but provided technical comments.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In 2013, GAO reported that FAA's budget planning did not fully account for future operations and maintenance needs and priorities of existing and NextGen systems. Since 2000, FAA had seen about a 60 percent growth in its overall budget, driven by a roughly 60 percent growth in its operations budget, but current law suggests reduced federal spending levels going forward are possible. Should FAA face reduced funding, while its operations and maintenance costs rise, along with its funding needs to support NextGen implementation, FAA would face difficult choices about how to allocate its available resources. FAA has a capital plan that outlines projects and related funding over a 5-year period that it adjusts on an annual basis to changes in funding levels. However, FAA did not have a similar plan to help the agency plan for operating costs in future years. In response, FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) established an operations review board that recognized the limitations in FAA's management of its operations budget. The board made several recommendations to FAA's ATO Chief Operating Officer to improve FAA's budgeting process, including developing a 5-year operations plan. However, FAA officials delayed implementation and did not identify a timeframe for returning to the board's recommendations. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA address the board's recommendations to best utilize limited operations funds. In 2016, GAO confirmed that FAA addressed the operations review board's recommendations to best utilize limited operations funds. Beginning in 2015, FAA developed a 5-year operations budget with financial estimates of requirements for every Operations program. FAA has also developed a strategic and repeatable process to strengthen budget formulation, which includes subject matter experts and final approval by executive leadership. Finally, FAA has also implemented a series of Budget Line Item codes in FAA's financial system that facilitate the identification and reporting of operations program spending levels. Taken together, these actions allow FAA to make informed decisions on how to distribute limited funds to existing operations and new NextGen systems that are being deployed.
Recommendation: To improve FAA's efforts to manage the transition between the existing air traffic control and NextGen systems, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop a strategy for implementing the Air Traffic Organization's operations review board recommendations, such as developing a 5-year operations plan that better identifies the operations and maintenance costs associated with existing and NextGen systems, establish a timeline for this effort, and ensure that sufficient data, including data on the condition of unstaffed infrastructure, are available to support establishing agency priorities.
Agency Affected: Department of Transportation