Next Generation Air Transportation System:

Progress and Challenges Associated with the Transformation of the National Airspace System

GAO-07-25: Published: Nov 13, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 13, 2006.

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In 2003, Congress created the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) to plan for and coordinate, with federal and nonfederal stakeholders, a transformation from the current air traffic control system to the "next generation air transportation system" (NGATS) by 2025. Housed within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), JPDO has seven partner agencies: the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security; FAA; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. FAA will have primary responsibility for implementing NGATS. This report addresses (1) the status of JPDO's efforts to plan for NGATS, (2) the key challenges facing JPDO, and (3) the key challenges facing FAA as it implements the transformation. To address these issues, GAO reviewed relevant documents, interviewed agency officials and stakeholders, and conducted an expert panel.

JPDO has developed a framework for planning and coordinating with its partner agencies and nonfederal stakeholders that is consistent with its authorizing legislation and with several practices that GAO's previous work has shown can facilitate federal interagency collaboration. JPDO's partner agencies have agreed on a vision for NGATS and on eight strategies that broadly address the goals and objectives of NGATS. JPDO has been developing an enterprise architecture (or blueprint) for NGATS and plans to use the enterprise architecture and stakeholder input from investment analysis workshops to develop a realistic cost estimate for NGATS. JPDO faces challenges in institutionalizing its collaborative effort, addressing planning and expertise gaps, establishing credibility with stakeholders, and harmonizing its work with other countries' efforts to modernize their own air traffic management systems. To date, JPDO has not established some practices significant to institutionalizing its collaborative process, such as formalizing roles and responsibilities. Such practices are important because JPDO is fundamentally a planning and coordinating body that lacks authority over the key human and financial resources needed to continue developing plans and system requirements for NGATS. FAA, as the key implementer of the transition to NGATS, faces challenges both in institutionalizing the management reforms that it has made in recent years that have contributed to its ability to meet its goals for air traffic control system acquisitions and in obtaining the financial and technical resources needed to implement NGATS. FAA also faces challenges in finding ways to reduce costs or realize savings to help fund the costs of transitioning to NGATS while continuing to operate and maintain the current system. Finally, FAA faces challenges in obtaining the technical and contract management expertise needed to define, implement, and integrate the numerous complex programs and systems inherent in the transition to NGATS.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the successful planning and implementation of NGATS and the need for effective collaboration between diverse organizations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct JPDO to better ensure the involvement of all key stakeholders in the NGATS planning process, by determining whether key stakeholders and expertise are not represented on JPDO's integrated product teams, divisions, or elsewhere within its organization. For example, JPDO should consider the addition of active, subject matter expert air traffic controllers to its integrated product teams.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: In multiple reports and testimonies on Air Traffic Control Modernization and subsequently the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) GAO has reported that a lack of stakeholder or expert involvement early and throughout a project can lead to cost increases and delays. We also found that the Joint Planning and Development Office within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had not adequately involved air traffic controllers or the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in NextGen planning efforts, and have since reported on challenges facing FAA in involving controllers and other stakeholders as they begin to implement various NextGen improvements. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation consider various actions to better ensure the involvement of all key stakeholders in planning and implementing NextGen and specifically recommended further involvement of active, subject matter expert air traffic controllers. Article 114 of the recently signed contract between the FAA and NATCA addresses this recommendation by directing full participation by NATCA to further the development and implementation of NextGen. The specifics of the agreement between FAA and NATCA regarding how and in what manner controllers will be included has yet to be determined, but the inclusion of Article 114 is a step in the right direction to ensuring active involvement. With greater active participation from air traffic controllers and NATCA, issues that cause cost increase and delays can be identified earlier and their effects mitigated.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the successful planning and implementation of NGATS and the need for effective collaboration between diverse organizations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct JPDO to develop written procedures for dispute resolution at all levels of the JPDO organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: Written procedures for dispute resolution were to be laid out in the annex to the memorandum of understanding that was signed in June of 2008. This annex has yet to be agreed upon and is still in draft form.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the successful planning and implementation of NGATS and the need for effective collaboration between diverse organizations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct JPDO to develop written procedures that formalize agreements with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regarding the leveraging of partner agency resources and the identification of NGATS-related programs within agency budgets.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have developed a process for identifying NextGen-related research programs in the partner agencies' budgets. Under this process, JPDO prepares an Exhibit 300 form for NextGen, which allows JPDO and its partner agencies to jointly present OMB with business cases for the partner agencies' NextGen-related efforts, and these business cases are used as inputs to funding decisions for NextGen research and acquisitions across the agencies. A written agreement of procedures between the partner agencies to use Exhibit 300 is to be laid out in the annex to the memorandum of agreement that was signed in June of 2008. This annex has yet to be agreed upon and is still in draft form. The annex is currently under review to ensure that it is consistent with Executive Order: Transformation of the National Air Transportation System, which contains requirements for OMB and other partner agencies.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the successful planning and implementation of NGATS and the need for effective collaboration between diverse organizations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct JPDO to clarify the roles and responsibilities between JPDO and Air Traffic Organization (ATO) in the planning, development, and transition from JPDO to FAA for implementation of NGATS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that the roles and responsibilities between the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and its Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) for the planning and implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) were unclear. Defining roles and responsibilities is particularly important between ATO and JPDO because both organizations have responsibilities related to planning national airspace system modernization. Some expert panelists believed there was a need to identify the "gap" areas that might fall between ATO's efforts to maintain the current system and JPDO's plans for the NextGen system. Without continued focus on clarifying and institutionalizing the relationship between ATO and JPDO, it is more difficult to ensure continued progress toward NextGen. We recommended that the Secretary of Transportation clarify the roles and responsibilities between ATO and JPDO in the planning, development, and transition from JPDO to FAA for implementation of NextGen. In 2010, the Director of JPDO informed us that the Secretary of Transportation has moved JPDO organizationally. JPDO is no longer housed within ATO and reporting to the FAA Chief Operating Officer (the head of ATO). Rather, JPDO is now independent of ATO, reporting directly to the FAA Deputy Administrator and the Secretary of Transportation. In addition, the roles and responsibilities of ATO and JPDO have been clarified. Near-term (to 2015) implementation and mid-term (2015 to 2018) planning of NextGen are now defined as ATO's responsibility; long-term (beyond 2018) planning of NextGen is defined as the responsibility of JPDO. As a result of the improved clarity in the roles and responsibilities of the offices, the NextGen effort can be better managed because of reduced chances of duplicated effort, gaps in efforts, or conflict among offices. Also, clarified roles and responsibilities should help the offices form a more effective, collaborative environment for planning and implementing NextGen.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of the successful planning and implementation of NGATS and the need for effective collaboration between diverse organizations, and to better institutionalize its practices and expectations for interagency collaboration and stakeholder involvement, the Secretary of Transportation should direct JPDO to finalize and present to the Senior Policy Committee for its consideration and action the memorandum of understanding among the partner agencies to define their roles and responsibilities related to NGATS planning and development.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2006, we found that the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), which helps to plan for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), had not established practices significant to institutionalizing the collaborative process among its partner agencies. At a fundamental level, JPDO did not have formal, long-term agreements among its partner agencies (the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security; the Federal Aviation Administration; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) on their roles and responsibilities in creating NextGen. At the time, JPDO had begun working to establish a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among the partner agencies. We recommended that JPDO finalize the MOU and present it to its Senior Policy Committee for its consideration and action. In 2013, we confirmed that the JPDO partner agencies had an MOU in place, signed by the Secretaries of Transportation, Commerce, Homeland Security, and the Air Force, and the NASA Administrator, setting forth the formal agreement among the partner agencies to implement NextGen. As a result, JPDO has better institutionalized its practices and expectations for interagency collaboration and stakeholder involvement.

    Recommendation: Given the technical complexity of the implementation of NGATS and FAA's past experiences, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA to undertake a formal exploration of FAA's strengths and weaknesses with regard to the technical expertise and contract management expertise that will be required to define, implement, and integrate the numerous complex programs and systems inherent in the transition to NGATS. For example, FAA should work to determine whether it will need to contract with an LSI, federally-funded not-for-profit corporation, or other technical or managerial entity to assist in the implementation of NGATS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to the Vice President for Planning, FAA, on June 13, 2007, FAA awarded a contract to the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to do an independent assessment of FAA's technical and program management (i.e., contract management) skills required for NextGen implementation. The Vice President directly attributed FAA's ability to move the contract award to GAO's recommendation.

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