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Next Generation Air Transportation: Collaborative Efforts with European Union Generally Mirror Effective Practices, but Near-Term Challenges Could Delay Implementation

GAO-12-48 Published: Nov 03, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 28, 2011.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

FAA and the EU are working collaboratively toward ensuring interoperability as they modernize their air traffic control systems (NextGen and SESAR) and are generally using effective collaborative practices, but mitigating stakeholder skepticism about realizing NextGen/SESAR benefits will be a challenge.

  • FAA-EU collaborative efforts predate NextGen and SESAR and helped establish some of these systems’ central concepts.
  • In March 2011, FAA and the EU signed a new agreement that established a formal collaborative structure for NextGen and SESAR.
  • FAA is generally following collaborative practices that we have observed in successful interagency collaborations, but some U.S. and EU stakeholders expressed skepticism about whether NextGen’s and SESAR’s benefits will ever be realized.
  • FAA could reduce stakeholder skepticism by providing, in its public documents, details on the new structure for collaboration and governance with the EU.

FAA and the EU are working collaboratively toward Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) interoperability. In 2006, FAA and the European Commission established a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allowed reciprocal participation in meetings, which provided each with an awareness of the other’s plans. The MOU also continued a long-standing agreement that fostered collaborative research and helped develop some of the central concepts of NextGen and SESAR, such as data communications and satellite-based surveillance. Additionally, FAA and the EU conducted demonstrations of NextGen/SESAR procedures and technologies that produced useful results at the airports involved in the demonstrations. In March 2011, FAA and the EU signed a separate Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) that established a formal collaborative structure for NextGen and SESAR. Outside of formal agreements, U.S. and EU standards bodies have formed joint committees to develop common standards for NextGen and SESAR systems. Additionally, FAA and the EU are working with an international standards organization to facilitate global interoperability.

FAA’s efforts toward interoperability generally mirror effective collaborative practices, but mitigating stakeholder skepticism about NextGen/SESAR benefits will nevertheless be a challenge. FAA and EU officials share a common goal—interoperability. Having a common goal is a characteristic of effective collaborative efforts. Also consistent with effective practices, the 2011 MOC provides a strategy for working together and provides the means to operate across U.S.-EU boundaries. The MOC also defines roles and responsibilities, leverages resources, and provides for monitoring and evaluating results. Some U.S. and European stakeholders expressed skepticism about whether those benefits will ever be realized, while others were unaware of the MOC’s details, such as its structure and governance for achieving interoperability. Although FAA has long collaborated with Europe, it has not disseminated information about these efforts in public documents, such as its strategic plans and performance reports. With the 2011 MOC’s signing, FAA has an opportunity to include in its public documents the details of the MOC’s structure for collaboration and governance. Such information could reduce skepticism on both sides of the Atlantic about realizing the future benefits of NextGen and SESAR and, in turn, reduce airlines’ hesitancy to equip with NextGen’s advanced technologies.

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Why GAO Did This Study

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is leading development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will transform the current radar-based air traffic control system into a satellite-based system. At the same time, the European Union (EU) is developing a similar transformation effort, known as the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) programme. Interoperable NextGen and SESAR systems and procedures will be important for aircraft to seamlessly transition from one system to the other.

As requested, this report discusses (1) the efforts that FAA has taken to ensure the interoperability of NextGen with SESAR and (2) how those efforts compare with effective interagency collaboration practices. To address these issues, GAO reviewed agreements between the U.S. and the EU concerning collaborative research on air traffic management and documents related to NextGen and SESAR; reviewed the literature on effective collaboration; and interviewed FAA and EU officials.

Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation To better inform aviation stakeholders of efforts toward interoperability and to improve accountability for, and the credibility of, such efforts, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to publicly provide more details on the efforts FAA has taken and planned toward NextGen/SESAR interoperability, such as through strategic plans, performance reports, or other means.
Closed – Implemented
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is leading development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will modernize the air traffic control system, while the European Union (EU) is developing a similar transformation effort known as the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) programme. Interoperable NextGen and SESAR systems and procedures will be important for trans-Atlantic aircraft to seamlessly transition from one system to the other. In 2011, we reported that although FAA and the EU were working collaboratively toward NextGen/SESAR interoperability, some aviation stakeholders expressed skepticism about whether the benefits of NextGen and SESAR would ever be realized, while others were unaware of the details of FAA and EU collaboration. Without confidence that FAA will follow through on its plans, airlines are hesitant to invest in the new equipment upon which the future benefits of NextGen and SESAR depend. FAA had not disseminated information about its collaborative efforts in public documents, such as its strategic plans and performance reports. Therefore, we recommended that FAA improve its dissemination of information to key stakeholders on the efforts taken and planned toward NextGen/SESAR interoperability. In 2015, we confirmed that FAA's 2012 NextGen Implementation Plan included a section on global harmonization which lays out its collaborative efforts to ensure interoperability. FAA included similar information in its 2013 Implementation Plan and its 2014 and 2015 NextGen updates. FAA and the EU also released a joint report in December 2014 summarizing FAA and EU progress towards achieving interoperability between NextGen and SESAR. Furthermore, starting in early fiscal year 2014, under the auspices of the NextGen Advisory Committee, NextGen and SESAR executives initiated joint briefings to industry stakeholders to provide ongoing updates on their collaborative efforts. As a result, aviation stakeholders are better informed of FAA's collaboration efforts to ensure interoperability.

Full Report

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