“The previous administration spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade the system, and totally failed. Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. A total waste of money, $7 billion-plus, plus. It’s time to join the future. That is why I’m proposing new principles to Congress for air traffic control reform, making flights quicker, safer and more reliable.”
— President Trump, remarks announcing plans for air traffic control, June 5, 2017
On June 5, in a White House ceremony, President Trump announced a plan to transfer part of federal air traffic control responsibilities to a private, nonprofit corporation. According to the administration, spinning off all air traffic control operations to a private, nonprofit corporation would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to focus solely on safety regulation.
Trump said the Obama administration “spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade” the aviation system, and “totally failed.” Is that the case?
For the past two decades, federal officials have struggled to relieve congestion in response to the ever-growing demand for air travel.
Air traffic hit record delays by 2000, then dropped after the Sept. 11 attacks the following year. But within a few years, the volume of travelers and flights was up again, leading to significant travel delays at the biggest airports. Federal officials decided that air traffic operations had reached a critical point.
In December 2003, Congress authorized the FAA to plan for a long-term air traffic control overhaul, to be completed in 2025. In January 2004, then-Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or “NextGen.” This program would modernize and expand FAA facilities and technologies by building new air traffic control facilities and computer systems and advanced weather satellite and radar systems.
“I know that we won’t see the full benefits of this activity before my tenure as secretary of transportation has ended,” Mineta said in his January 2004 announcement speech at the Aero Club of Washington. “Nevertheless, I am investing my personal time in this initiative because of its critical importance to the future of U.S. aviation.”
Then, 2006 became the worst year for air traffic — worse than 2000 — and 2007 saw a return to pre-9/11 figures in the number of air passengers. FAA officials assured Congress and the public that the NextGen developments will be crucial in finding long-term solutions. Yet as of 2008, there was little progress.
“By all accounts the Federal Aviation Administration is in need of a major overhaul, as called for by the newly announced FAA Modernization Act,” said a January 2008 editorial in the Aerospace America magazine. “At the same time, however, the agency is currently operating under a continuing resolution, as its budget is bandied about in Congress. And off in the distance stands NextGen.”
As readers can see, this program predates the Obama administration and faced delays from the get-go.
From fiscal 2004 through fiscal 2016, the FAA received $7.4 billion for programs and activities the agency identified as NextGen, representing 4 percent of Congress’s total appropriations to the FAA during that period, according to a November 2016 Government Accountability Office report. The FAA spent 2004 through 2006 planning for its transition to NextGen, and began its research and development by fiscal 2007. Of the $7.4 billion, the FAA received $7.1 billion in fiscal 2009-2016.
“This sum [in fiscal 2009-2016] makes up most of the overall funding cited in the GAO report,” a White House spokesman noted.
Has it “totally failed”? Not quite. The project has changed over time, and it has faced delays. New technologies emerged, and the industry’s needs changed. But some new capabilities are in place now, or on track to be in place by 2020-2050. The total cost estimate for NextGen evolved but has not increased markedly since the initial projection in fiscal 2004, the GAO found.
High-priority projects made progress, but other projects are delayed, according to a May 2017 testimony by Calvin L. Scovel III, the Department of Transportation inspector general: “Our work continues to demonstrate that while FAA has taken some action to implement the reform authorities Congress granted almost two decades ago, it has not achieved the large-scale efficiencies, productivity enhancements, and cost savings intended for these reforms.”
National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said through collaboration with the aviation industry, FAA is on or ahead of schedule with some of the most critical NextGen programs, such as developing a system to automate communication between controllers and pilots to increase efficiency.
“It’s important to point out that since 2009, we have focused on working together to modernize the system while simultaneously maintaining the safety and efficiency of the world’s busiest, most complex, most diverse, and safest airspace. This is no simple task,” Rinaldi said.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump’s comments must be placed into context.
Trump characterizes this program as an Obama-era error, but the planning for the massive overhaul began in 2000. Congress authorized the FAA to tackle these changes in 2003, and the Department of Transportation launched the NextGen program in January 2004. This was always going to be a long-term project to be completed in 2025. There have been delays and changes in the project, but high-priority projects have made progress. Some new capabilities under NextGen are already in effect or on track for 2020-2025, the GAO found.
While the majority of $7.4 billion the FAA received for NextGen was given to the agency in fiscal 2009-2016, it represents just 4 percent of the total money appropriated to the FAA between fiscal 2004 (when the program began) and fiscal 2016. Trump earns Two Pinocchios for the lack of context.
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