Former DOT head: “Airlines need to talk in economic terms, not technical ones.”

USA Today has a catch-all profile on the struggle to fund NextGen, with a particular focus on the failure to secure federal stimulus dollars so far. The main critical/analytical voice is James Burnley, who headed DOT in the late eighties.

James Burnley, a Washington attorney who served as the last Transportation secretary in the Reagan administration in 1987-89, says the complexity of NextGen is one of the reasons the new system hasn’t gained funding, despite its obvious benefits.

The acronyms alone can cause the eyes of even members of congressional committees with oversight over the FAA to glaze over, he says. To make their case for spending $20 billion quickly, the airlines need to talk in economic terms, not technical ones.

There’s an economic case to be made. The congressional Joint Economic Committee reported last year that in 2007 air traffic control-related congestion and delays cost the U.S. economy $41 billion. That included $19 billion in extra operating costs on fuel, labor, aircraft maintenance and the lost use of delayed planes. It also included $12 billion in reduced productivity for the passengers traveling and $10 billion in added spending for food and lodging for travelers.

However, Burnley says, the airlines couldn’t make that case quickly and clearly enough to get money for NextGen into the stimulus legislation — despite it being an upgrade to the nation’s infrastructure that could provide long-term economic benefits.

Burnley says that the NextGen cause wasn’t helped when Ray LaHood, Obama’s choice as the secretary of Transportation, hadn’t been confirmed during most of the stimulus bill debate.

Nor had Obama named an administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air safety and traffic control. Randy Babbitt, a veteran industry consultant and former national head of the Air Line Pilots Association, has since been nominated.

“No one was sure who it was that was going to lead in making the case for NextGen being sped up,” Burnley said.

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