The Federal Aviation Administration's massive, long-term air traffic control systems upgrade risks ballooning in costs from an already expensive $40 billion price tag to as much as a whopping $160 billion, an internal FAA planning office has found.
According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, the FAA's joint planning and development office determined that, if the FAA implements the "highest performance levels" suggested for NextGen, such as requiring extensive electronic systems to be installed on every aircraft, it could make NextGen's cost rise dramatically.
In order to keep costs low, the FAA report found, NextGen will have to be developed with fewer ground and aircraft capabilities than envisioned. "Analysis shows a subset of scenarios developed, assuming lower levels of capabilities, whose cost estimates remain in the $40 billion range," the GAO report said.
GAO also noted that the FAA has not yet established clear performance goals and metrics for NextGen despite creating an implementation plan through 2018. "Without goals and metrics, FAA could pursue and implement capabilities that fail to produce the desired results," the report said.
NextGen is arguably the largest project the FAA has ever undertaken. Today's air traffic systems are decades behind current technologies, and the United States risks falling behind the rest of the world without an upgrade. In response, the NextGen system will transition U.S. air travel from a ground-based, analog system to a satellite-based, data-based and more automated system. It will optimize and automate parts of ground and air traffic control, enable real-time GPS maps of air and ground traffic, employ computerized weather monitoring to help route plans, and let planes fly closer together without any loss of safety, among other benefits.
However, with its goals being so ambitious and taking place over such a long time frame, the GAO and Congress have repeatedly raised concerns about maintaining rigorous controls over NextGen in order to keep it on schedule and budget.
In April, witnesses told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the FAA's handling of the project called into question its ability to manage it and raised concerns that NextGen would fail to be completed on schedule. Then, in June, the FAA's inspector general reported that the agency needed to do more planning to assure the project's success and had failed to develop the necessary skill sets to make NextGen work. A third negative report came in July when the GAO found the FAA didn't have adequate performance metrics in place for the project.
Earlier reports have also noted that significant research gaps remain unresolved that could threaten FAA's proposed schedule, including ways to synchronize numerous weather applications.