Aviation groups want to protect FAA’s NextGen from budget impasses

Proposed legislation would keep money flowing to FAA’s modernization initiative in a partial government shutdown

When lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee asked industry groups how U.S. air traffic control could be improved, they got a resounding answer: consistent funding.

“The more-than-a-decade of stop-and-go funding has negatively undermined all aspects of the air traffic control system,” Elizabeth Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers union, told senators during a Tuesday hearing, the first in a series the committee plans to hold on the topic of air traffic control.

Gilbert was referring in part to the six times since 1995 that the U.S. federal government has been partially shut down by budget deadlocks between the White House and Congress. In a shutdown, air traffic controllers work without pay, but work by the FAA and its contractors halts on Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. This upgrade of aircraft surveillance equipment and air traffic control facilities includes the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, network in which aircraft broadcast their identities and locations to ground antennas, Iridium satellites and surrounding planes. The FAA plans to have the majority of the NextGen updates in place by 2025, but two witnesses told the panel that last year’s shutdown put that schedule in jeopardy.

That’s why Gilbert and other representatives of pilot and airline groups want Congress to pass the Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2019. The bill, versions of which have been introduced in both the House and Senate, would let the FAA use funds from the $6 billion Airport and Airway Trust Fund to keep NextGen and other programs going during a government shutdown.

Even short-term funding gaps can have long-term implications, Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told lawmakers at the hearing. The most recent shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019 lasted 35 days, but “translated to an 18-month delay” in the roll out of the NextGen Data Communications technology to airports, he said. With Data Comm, air traffic controllers will clear planes for departure via digital text messages that pop up on cockpit displays, replacing today’s voice communications from the controllers to pilots. The Data Comm program, which includes additional training for air traffic controllers, is now scheduled to be completed in mid-2021 instead of the end of this year.

The Aviation Stability Act would prevent such delays by providing the FAA with “stable and reliable funding” so it can carry out NextGen without interruption, DePete said.

Outside of NextGen, Gilbert of the air traffic controllers union said the lack of stable funding delays the hiring and training of air traffic controllers. That could complicate efforts to welcome new classes of aircraft, such as consumer drones and unmanned package delivery aircraft, into the airspace. For example, the FAA is in the process of bringing recreational drone flyers under the rules for commercial operators, which includes authorization to fly in controlled airspace.

“Without funding certainty, the FAA will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity [in the national air space], let alone modernize the system and expand it for new users,” she said.

The House and Senate continue to debate their versions of the bill, but the concept has received bipartisan support from key lawmakers, including Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that funds the FAA, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the ranking member of the Senate aviation subcommittee. Moran introduced the Senate version of the bill in March. During the hearing, Moran noted that critics of the legislation fear “we’ll just see more shutdowns if there’s not a consequence” to Congress failing to pass yearly funding legislation.

What did the witnesses think of that argument?

“Senator, your explanation on why not to pass your bill is a Washington-only explanation,” said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association.


“Without funding certainty, the FAA will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity [in the national air space], let alone modernize the system and expand it for new users.”

Elizabeth Gilbert of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Aviation groups want to protect FAA’s NextGen from budget impasses