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This testimony discusses the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) efforts to modernize the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system and its relationship to other initiatives to address the escalating crises of insufficient capacity facing the aviation industry. Specifically, GAO reviews the (1) extent of the delay and congestion problems and the contribution of the ATC system to them, (2) progress and problems encountered in FAA's ATC modernization program, and (3) importance of a continued focus on delivering ATC equipment and on human capital issues as policymakers seek to address delays and congestion. GAO found that the national airspace system (NAS) is facing significant capacity problems. Last year, more than 25 percent of nationwide flights were canceled, delayed or diverted. These actions affected 163 million passengers who, on average, were delayed almost an hour. Inefficiencies in the ATC system contribute to the delays and congestion. Modernizing equipment, along with other changes in the ATC system, is expected to help increase the capacity of NAS between 5 and 15 percent. However, improvements from FAA's modernization program have fallen short so far. Although FAA has installed new equipment to provide the necessary platform for fielding modern technologies to improve efficiency, this effort has experienced cost, schedule, and performance problems. As part of this program, FAA has begun to deploy new technologies to achieve free flight, which will enable pilots and controllers to select optimal flight paths, thereby lowering costs and helping to accommodate more flights in the nation's airspace. To ensue that the modernization effort is successful, FAA must institute a performance-oriented culture, which is essential to establishing accountability and coordination throughout the agency. Furthermore, FAA will need to address the wave of retirements among aviation industry professionals, such as FAA controllers and airline mechanics expected within the decade.

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