GAO Says ATC Changes Could Affect NextGen Implementation

There’s good and bad to be had with any restructuring.

This NASA graphic details the organizational and operational elements of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).NASA

The General Accountability Office was tasked by Congress in November 2015 to research two questions following more than a decade of NextGen planning and implementation by the FAA. One, how has the agency implemented NextGen to date, the second to review the FAA's plans to mitigate the challenges the agency still faces to complete NextGen. The GAO's audit was completed last month.

Considering the heat the FAA has taken over the past decade from the GAO related to NextGen, this latest report offered a fairly positive review of the FAA's handling of NextGen up to now. That didn't mean the GAO ignored past agency mistakes by any means, like those of inconsistent leadership over the past decade. But the GAO did point out positive changes the FAA has implemented as it wrestles with bringing NextGen completely online, such as attention to the budget that has kept costs in line with estimates from a decade ago.

One significant challenge the GAO did identify focused on restructuring efforts of late that could slice the ATC function away from the FAA, leaving the agency with only a safety and regulatory mission.

To properly set the stage for its findings, the GAO identified the restructuring issue as the “establishment of a separate not-for-profit corporate entity” to run ATC, understanding the corporatization and privatization monikers have been used interchangeably in recent discussions. The GAO said the good news is that if the effort to create a solid funding stream were successful, it could positively affect the implementation of NextGen.

Because there’s no successful model to look to, stakeholders from all sides of the not-for-profit system worried however, that due to the many unknowns of creating such a new organization, the agency and the new corporatized organization could both suffer from the amount of time and money required to complete the transition. For instance, no one knows how much time might be needed to terminate or revise contracts between the FAA and the companies that supply NextGen technologies.

Stakeholders also acknowledged concerns about precisely how management and labor roles and responsibilities would be defined within both organizations. “According to the FAA, the transition could create some uncertainty among some employees over future workforce or organizational changes,” the report said, admitting at the end, however, that’s it’s simply unclear to anyone [at this point] just how these structural changes might affect the final NextGen implementation process, or the product the efforts were designed to improve.

Another labor concern is that while the National Air Traffic Controllers Association supports reform, it hasn't necessarily jumped on the privatization bandwagon. Many frontline controllers Flying spoke to said they worried about precisely how the administration plans to make privatization and modernization work since few specifics have been released. Some wonder if they'll actually be better off with a new structure or allowing controllers to simply remain in place as part of the federal workforce.