ERAM Deployed Five Years Late, NRC Blasts FAA on NextGen Delays

We saw two announcements on air traffic control modernization last week. The first was that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had finally completed its En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) deployment, a critical component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) update of National Airspace System (NAS) management.

ERAM greatly improves flight tracking, communications, and controller displays by harnessing new technologies that have been developed in the last several decades. This is all well and good, but ERAM rollout was supposed to have been completed by 2010. Five years late and several hundred million dollars over budget, it is a bit rich for the FAA to be declaring victory. But perhaps this is to be expected from a broken agency culture. Recall that the automated flight tracking computer system ERAM is replacing, the Host, suffered from serious delays when it was implemented… in the 1980s.

The second big air traffic control announcement was the comprehensive review of NextGen published by the National Research Council. Appropriately described by The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey as “scathing,” the NRC report, which was ordered by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, calls out FAA’s failings in implementing NextGen. Halsey highlights some quotes:

  • “The original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today.”
  • “This shift in focus has not been clear to all stakeholders.”
  • “Airlines are not motivated to spend money on equipment and training for NextGen.”
  • “Not all parts of the original vision will be achieved in the foreseeable future.”
  • “NextGen, as currently executed, is not broadly transformational.”
  • “‘NextGen’ has become a misnomer.”

Ouch. Another interesting quote I found dealt with the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the NAS. The opening comment period just closed on the FAA’s small UAS notice of proposed rulemaking (read CEI’s comments), and the FAA is almost guaranteed to miss Congress’s September 2015 NAS integration deadline. The NRC report notes:

NextGen planning and architecture did not explicitly anticipate the introduction of UAS and thus does not readily lend itself to incorporating these new types of aircraft that will place new demands on the system. The challenge of integrating UAS into the national airspace illustrates the challenges of accommodating changing requirements within the current approach to managing architectural and system evolution. The expected integration of UAS into the NAS will present new safety issues stemming from increased reliance on data links, limited operator sensory and environmental cues, and so on. An insufficiently developed system architecture is one of several obstacles to introducing UAS into the NAS. The integration of UAS is an example of a rapidly emerging requirement that could provoke disruptive changes to both technology and to roles and responsibilities.

Unfortunately for the UAS industry, researchers, and hobbyists, the technology will likely be the guinea pig for broader NextGen implementation experimentation, and the NRC report goes on to recommend that the FAA’s “architecture leadership community should look for and apply lessons from the challenge of integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) as it develops an effective system architecture.” To put another way, the NRC committee is telling the FAA to fundamentally change the way it does business by testing out supposedly more efficient internal practices on nascent aircraft technologies, and then to scale up these new and improved internal practices to the broader organization. Pardon me for being incredibly skeptical that any good will come from this.

It is clear that the FAA cannot be trusted to deliver NextGen in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost. This is in large part why serious discussions are now taking place on Capitol Hill and in the aviation community to fundamentally reform the structure of airspace management in the U.S. While it remains to be seen how exactly this would be accomplished, all serious proposals involve spinning off the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization into an independent entity. The Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole, one of the intellectual godfathers of air traffic control corporatization, authored a comprehensive report on how Congress might structure this new air traffic controlling entity.

CEI supports the creation of a non-governmental, nonprofit air navigation service provider, similar to NavCanada, which we believe would speed the deployment of new technologies, improve service, and reduce costs. It is clear that the FAA status quo isn’t working and that fundamental organizational reforms are needed to usher in a 21st century aviation system.