ADS-B’s Woes in Perspective

A highly critical report released yesterday by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General outlining serious shortcomings with the FAA's progress on ADS-B is embarrassing for the agency, coming as it does on the heels of pronouncements that the $6.5 billion program is progressing just fine and the 2020 ADS-B mandate is a sure-fire, locked-and-loaded firm date.

Much of what was said in the report isn't really new — although the revelation that the FAA will need to erect 200 more ADS-B ground towers at a cost of a quarter billion dollars to close coverage gaps raises eyebrows, if only because the agency made such a big deal earlier this year in announcing that the network was finished.

Yet while somewhat humiliating for the FAA, these kinds of setbacks and hiccups are almost routine for major ATC modernization programs. I can’t think of one in which an Inspector General report didn’t fault the agency for failing to meet time and cost targets.

A U.S. Senator called WAAS a “$4 billion boondoggle” as the ground- and satellite-based augmentation system was being created. There was much handwringing at the time over the program as some worried that it might implode in a brilliant ball of flaming bureaucratic ineptitude. We all know how the story turned out. Today WAAS is an integral part of our national airspace system, allowing for the creation of thousands of satellite-based Rnav arrival procedures at airports that never had precision approach capability.

All of which is to say that ADS-B is going to be just fine. I’m not sure I completely buy the FAA’s stern pronouncements that the 2020 deadline is set in stone, but I’m not willing to bet against the agency either. More critical reports like the one we saw today will follow, more handwringing will occur, and sometime toward the end of 2019 — a little more than five years from now — the conversation, in all likeihood, will have pivoted from ADS-B technical glitches and cost overruns to the mad rush for ADS-B equipage by aircraft owners who were betting against the FAA on this one.

My advice? Make sure you're ready for ADS-B by New Year's Eve 2019.

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