Newly fashionable: complaining about lack of NextGen progress

Feeling impatient about the pace of ATC modernization? Apparently, you’ve got plenty of company. The griping began at the recent Senate hearings on NextGen, with opening remarks coming from subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan:

We need to make progress. Some are talking about NextGen 2020, 2025. In my judgment, that’s a pace that is too slow. We need to make substantially more progress at a much better pace than that. [..] This is not some ’20 years from now’ sci-fi application.

Later in the hearing, Dorgan directed a particular criticism at what he considers to be stakeholder infighting:

You all work for the same team, paid by the same taxpayers. All of us are tired of delay, and we’re tired of some of the battles that go on.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Jay Rockefeller brought home the same point in his prepared statement:

I strongly believe that modernizing our nation’s embarrassingly obsolete air traffic control system is the FAA’s highest priority, and the efforts to reauthorize should reflect this.

Everyone knows of my passion to move the U.S. past Mongolia in the ranking of air traffic control systems, and I’d like to make just a few very brief remarks on this issue.

The development of NextGen is not just a technology project that would be good to do.  It is not just some computer upgrade project.  [..]

For too long, we have focused on the technology of the system.  We’ve become too focused on acronyms like SWIM and ADS-B, rather than the benefits that all Americans will enjoy by building a satellite-based system with digital communications.

This was just the beginning. Later in the hearing, Rockefeller followed up:

I, like Chairman Dorgan, am very intense about this subject.  And I’m kind of tired of talking about it. Everything that the President talks about, that is — carbon release, wasted time, damage to the economy, frustrated people, people not having reason to have confidence in their government, etc. — all comes together in not having NextGen, NowGen, whatever you want to call it. Some people are using the excuse that we don’t have the money for it. I consider that to be way off the mark. We have to do this and we have to do it right away. So my question to you is: why are we so slow?

Answers were thin on ground, but these remarks appear to have opened the door for others to go on record with their frustrations. United Airlines CEO and ATA Chairman Glenn Tilton gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal on Friday, in which he returned to the issue of how transportation stimulus funds were allocated.

“While it makes sense that projects need to be ‘shovel-ready’ to help these efforts in 2009, they must have to be ‘next generation’ to sustain future growth in the years ahead,” Mr. Tilton said. “Why then is rapid rail in the stimulus package for some $9 billion and for NextGen, zero?”

In an interview, Mr. Tilton said he doesn’t know why the project wasn’t included in the stimulus package. “Perhaps the absence of an FAA administrator left the project without an advocate,” he said. “If there were to be a second stimulus package, I and the ATA board would make a compelling case for NextGen inclusion.”

When the White House appoints a new FAA administrator, a step expected very soon, the new FAA chief should try to bring the timetable for the ATC system forward and “front-load the benefits,” Mr. Tilton said. “What can we do promptly with technology available today? It should be now-gen rather than next-gen.”

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