"Realigning for NextGen"
J. Randolph Babbitt, National Harbor, Md.
October 3, 2011

ATCA, 56th Annual Conference and Exposition


Thank you for that introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here today.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of air traffic control in the United States. And your organization has been an integral part of that history.

We’ve made countless advances in air traffic control since the 1930s when the first air traffic controllers began to plot the progress of flights using radio reports from pilots.

Air traffic control has gone from bonfires to beacons to radar, and now space-based satellite technology. 

The advances have helped the aviation industry achieve and maintain an unparalleled safety record, all the while constantly improving efficiency of the biggest and busiest airspace space system in the world.

It really is amazing when you think about it. Our system has grown from three control centers in the 1930s to hundreds of federal control towers today.

Our system hums each day with 15,000 air traffic controllers handling more than 50,000 flights daily. And at peak, sometimes up to 70,000 a day.

We are constantly striving to improve by working with both the industry and our own employees. Earlier this year, NATCA president Paul Rinaldi and I joined forces in a Call to Action on air traffic controller safety and professionalism.

Today I would like to announce that I have accepted a set of recommendations from a blue ribbon panel with the goal of improving air traffic controller training.

This independent panel was asked to review all aspects of a controller’s experience at the FAA including the hiring process, training, placement and career development. 

Our air traffic controllers do a phenomenal job every day helping passengers and flight crews get to their destinations safely.

As we move forward with the transformation to NextGen, we need to make sure they are absolutely receiving the best training possible.

This report shows we are doing a great job, but there are things we can do better and will do better.

We are now reviewing nearly 50 recommendations and developing a plan to address them.

Some of those recommendations include conducting a more stringent evaluation of the curriculum at collegiate air traffic control programs around the country.

We also want to develop a standardized “advanced” training course that controllers would be required to take before arriving at their permanent field facility. This would ensure that every controller starts with the same set of skills. And they would not be so dependent upon learning those skills in the field.

We are looking at establishing a yearly refresher course for senior controllers who serve as field instructors for new controllers. We want to make sure we are consistent and more uniform – and that our instructors too have the latest techniques and skills.

And finally, we are reviewing a recommendation to create mobile simulator labs. The idea is to ensure that controllers in smaller facilities have equal access to simulator training technology.

I am grateful to the independent panel for their hard work on these recommendations. And I look forward to working with NATCA to implement these changes. 

As we move forward with NextGen, we know that we must constantly adjust our way of doing business to reach the next level of safety and efficiency.

We also recognize that we need to change the FAA internally to best serve the future needs of our nation’s aviation system, and to continue to be the best stewards of taxpayer dollars.

This means realigning some functions in order to better manage the transformation to NextGen. 

Congress approved the reprogramming request we submitted this summer to change our reporting structure and implement other organizational changes. This is a critical step in moving forward with the changes that will lay the foundation for our success as an agency in the next 15 years.

The reprogramming approval allows us to create a NextGen office that will report to Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta. He is setting the strategic direction for NextGen and continuing to raise NextGen’s profile within the FAA and the aviation community.

While much of NextGen involves the air traffic control function, it also involves much more than that, and needs the involvement and focus of every FAA office going forward.

Congress also supported our proposal for how we handle large programs going forward into the future. As you may have heard, we are creating a Program Management Office in the Air Traffic Organization to better manage our major acquisition programs, including NextGen. This office will play a critical role in the success of NextGen by acting as the bridge between strategic requirements and tactical program implementation. 

Currently, air traffic acquisitions managers are embedded in different offices. Soon they will all be in one place. Having a portfolio of programs under one umbrella provides the potential for streamlining, better cost control, and economies of scale.

Several infrastructure programs that support NextGen will be moved to the new Program Management Office, such as ERAM. And acquisition management for many NextGen programs themselves will move there, such as ADS-B.

These changes will help us to better coordinate the evolution of our air traffic control system as we embrace NextGen.

In the meantime, Congress is in the midst of the 2012 budget process. The President has asked for more than $18 billion to run the FAA and he is very supportive of NextGen.

President Obama recognizes the importance of maintaining our infrastructure and the economic good that comes from putting people back to work on these projects.

The American Jobs Act proposes a $50 billion immediate investment in construction jobs to rebuild America’s airports, roadways, railways and transit systems.  It will put people to work restoring 150 miles of runways, upgrading 150,000 miles of road and improving 4,000 miles of train tracks.

As part of this infrastructure investment, the Act includes $1 billion to continue our research and development to advance NextGen.

And it proposes $2 billion for airport improvements – runways, taxiways, aprons, terminals and noise mitigation –above and beyond monies in the regular AIP program. 

You’ve also heard talk of a National Infrastructure Bank. The American Jobs Act proposes a bank with $10 billion in upfront funding. The bank would operate independently and issue loans and loan guarantees emphasizing two fundamental criteria: how badly a project is needed and how much good it would do for the economy. Airport projects and air traffic control systems would be eligible.

We are encouraged by these proposals.

And we are continuing to work to achieve a multi-year reauthorization for the FAA. Last month, we avoided a repeat furlough of nearly 4,000 FAA employees. We have been reauthorized until the end of January. But this is our 22nd short term reauthorization. The FAA needs longer term funding to better plan improvements that will help us to maintain our system as the largest and safest aviation system in the world.

We are working on many fronts to secure the funding that we need to deliver the policies, the procedures and infrastructure that will take us into the aviation system of tomorrow.

Just as radar revolutionized air traffic control in the 1950s, NextGen is revolutionizing air traffic control now. It is the next milestone in aviation innovation that will bring us greater advances in safety and efficiency.

If we delay infrastructure investments today, the long term cost to our nation – to our passengers and our environment – will far exceed the cost of going forward with the technology now.

You at ATCA are an important part of that innovation. We look to the market and to industry groups for fresh ideas. Together, as partners, we can move forward and create the best template for the next century of flight.

Thank you, and I’ll be happy to take questions.

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