With all the rhetoric about transforming ATC, equipping aircraft with ADS-B technology and reaching long-term goals (FAA says "a large percentage" of NextGen's benefits will be available in 2018 and the system should be fully in place by 2025), what sometimes gets lost is the main purpose for moving to a more modern system: Reducing day-to-day flight delays and cancellations. Some observers are worried that the agency is so focused on long-term NextGen planning that it is paying too little attention to measures it could take in the near term to improve system efficiency.

Government Accountability Office Director-Physical Infrastructure Issues Gerald Dillingham told lawmakers at last week's hearing that FAA should put more effort into what he called "NowGen," which he characterized as "maximizing what can be done with existing, proven capabilities and existing infrastructure." He explained that there needs to be "a realization that ATC modernization is an evolving process. We're not going to flip a switch and have NextGen."

In a background document prepared for the hearing, House aviation subcommittee staff noted that airlines have "expressed a desire for more detail on near- to mid-term NextGen capabilities, requirements and benefits." Mapping out a "bridge" between the current ATC system and the envisioned NextGen is critical because the transition will require carriers to spend billions of dollars to equip aircraft. The staff document pointed out that "real operational benefits in the mid-term. . .would help the industry justify and plan for the investments."

Former FAA Administrator and current Aerospace Industries Assn. President and CEO Marion Blakey said that "operator equipage has always been considered the 'long pole in the tent' with regard to getting NextGen fully implemented. . .If the commercial fleet has less than the critical amount of requisite avionics, implementation will not succeed. . .We need to define NextGen's economic and environmental benefits in a way that makes the equipment purchase defensible to [airlines'] corporate boards and shareholders."

She explained that this requires FAA to "stay on track in terms of measurable goals" and give carriers "incentives" to equip. Airlines are reluctant to make large investments, particularly in the current economy, solely on the vague promise of a more efficient ATC system in 10-15 years.

FAA Senior VP-NextGen and Operations Planning Victoria Cox insisted that the agency understands the need to increase air traffic efficiency in the short run. "We are moving forward with a dual-pronged approach: Maximizing the use of untapped capabilities in today's aircraft and ground infrastructure, while working aggressively to develop and deploy new systems and procedures that will form a foundation for more transformative capabilities," she told lawmakers.

Cox said new runways opened late last year at Seattle-Tacoma, Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare will help reduce delays. She noted that FAA has made major progress on closely spaced parallel runway operations and is "working on capabilities that allow for continued use of [parallel] runways in low visibility conditions." The agency issued an order in November 2008 "that allows us to safely reduce separation between aircraft approaching parallel runways at Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Seattle. . .This order is a first step in a phased approach for safely increasing the use of CSPOs through a combination of procedural changes and new ground and aircraft equipment."

She touted performance-based navigation as "another building block for NextGen" and noted that Southwest Airlines has operated test flights using Required Navigation Procedures and "envisions building a network of RNP routes for their system."

Dillingham said traffic flow management technologies and tailored arrival procedures "could be implemented more widely and used more effectively to address capacity constraints." And Blakey pointed out that Lockheed Martin's En Route Automation Modernization system, on which FAA has invested $2 billion, will begin to be activated within the next month when ERAM sites in Seattle and Salt Lake City go on line. ERAM is designed to replace the En Route Host computer system that currently is used to manage air traffic in US airspace. When fully deployed, it "will enable aircraft operations to reduce San Francisco to New York JFK flight times by 3%," Blakey claimed. "This will save about six million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually."

Complicating implementation of both near-term and long-term initiatives is the fact that FAA's authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2007, forcing the agency to be operated since via a series of temporary funding extensions. Congress appears to be several months away from passing an FAA reauthorization bill. Blakey left the agency 18 months ago when her five-year term expired and a replacement still has not been named.

"If FAA were a private entity, [based on its size and budget] it would be a Fortune 500 company, yet we expect it to sustain excellence and global leadership without long-term authority, confidence or stability in its programs and funding," Blakey told the House panel. "We cannot continue this. We have to accept the responsibility of providing cutting-edge air transportation system services on a schedule that is not constantly sabotaged by funding battles."