"Enhancing Safety and Performance at Airports Through NextGen"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
March 21, 2013

AAAE/ACI Legislative Conference


Thank you, Todd (Todd Hauptli), for that introduction.  It is great to be here today, and I appreciate the invitation to share my views on airports and their important contribution to the economy.

Airports are the gateways to locations near and far.  It is at the airport where we greet arriving family members, or depart for that important business trip.  It is where we experience all facets of our global village: vacationers, business travelers, students departing to study abroad, or people traveling to far off lands to visit relatives.  And airports are the place where so many components of aviation converge.

We all know the importance of aviation to America and the global economy.  Airports big and small are part of this economic engine – they contribute to local, national, and global economies alike.  Aviation and airports fuel jobs and trade.  

Our goal at the FAA is to take aviation to the next level of safety and to leverage technology to make air travel more efficient and more sustainable.

We are trying to do this now in a very challenging fiscal environment.  The sequester is requiring the FAA to make significant cuts in services and investments.  These cuts will impact air traffic control services, NextGen implementation, and our certification and safety services.

The sequester requires us to cut more than $600 million from the FAA’s budget.  We are looking at all options to reduce costs – we have implemented a hiring freeze, we are cutting contracts, and we’re reducing travel and other items not related to day-to-day operations.  

But, to reach the large figure we need to cut, we have sent notices to 47,000 FAA employees letting them know that they may be furloughed up to one day every two weeks.  Furloughs will begin on April 21, and are expected to continue for the remainder of the fiscal year.  Unlike government shutdowns that we have seen before, the furloughs include critical personnel such as air traffic controllers and safety inspectors.  We are also cutting back on preventative maintenance, meaning that critical airfield equipment might not be repaired as quickly.  This could lead to delays.

Safety remains the FAA’s top priority, and we will only allow the amount of air traffic we can handle safely to take off and land.  This translates into probable delays for travelers. 

Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco could experience delays up to 90 minutes during peak hours.  This is because we will have fewer controllers on staff, and there will be limited flexibility in shifting or reassigning controllers to other duties.  Delays in those major airports will ripple across the country. 

We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate, and general aviation operators.  We also expect that airlines will consider changes to their schedules and cancel flights as they realize the effects of these furloughs.

The FAA has notified 189 airports across the country with federal contract towers that their facilities could be closed.  These towers handle less than 3 percent of commercial operations nationally, and less than 1 percent of passengers.  We expect to make a final decision Friday on whether any of these towers should remain open.  We are taking into consideration whether closing them would adversely affect the national interest.

An area that is exempt from the sequester, however, is the Airport Improvement Program and the staff that run the FAA’s Office of Airports.  This not only includes the AIP grant program staff, but also personnel that manage airport safety standards, improvements, and programs.  And now that we have a four-year reauthorization, the AIP has much more predictability and stability. 

We fully obligated 100 percent of AIP funds available for grants in fiscal year 2012 to support airport planning and infrastructure projects.  That amounted to nearly $3.4 billion dollars for critical investments and upgrades to improve our nation’s aviation infrastructure.  A strong infrastructure is the foundation for healthy commerce and a robust economy.  

Over the last four years, the FAA has issued grants totaling more than $14 billion.  During that time, airports throughout the United States have successfully completed many development projects.  This has included the rehabilitation or extension of runways, taxiways and aprons.  Some of these airports have also received grants to enhance runway safety areas, to build and improve airport terminals, and to reduce environmental impacts.  These improvements are extremely important to the enhanced safety and efficiency of our entire national airspace, and to meet the demands of growing air travel.  They are critical to preserving our airport infrastructure, and for helping expand the benefits of NextGen. 

Let me give you some examples of how AIP has contributed to our nation’s airports.  Last year, the FAA awarded $1.3 million in grants for Chicago O’Hare, Denver and San Francisco International Airports to buy vehicle surveillance equipment that will increase safety by helping to reduce the risk of conflicts between airport vehicles and aircraft. 

In another grant, $14 million was given to rehabilitate the main runway at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee.  And, $2.5 million was awarded to the Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beckley, West Virginia to relieve congestion on the parking area for transient aircraft.  It will also accommodate aircraft that now have to park on taxiways, and it will accommodate current airport users and future growth.

Many other grants are helping us make the changes needed to improve infrastructure and to build NextGen capabilities at airports throughout the U.S. 

As we know, NextGen is about creating a more efficient, environmentally sound, and ultimately safer aviation system.  It is helping us evolve from the ground-based radar system of today to a satellite-based system of tomorrow. 

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, for example, is one of the key developments in NextGen.  It is now available in about two thirds of the United States, and in 2014, coverage is expected in all areas currently served by radar.  ADS-B transmits the location of aircraft to controllers and other ADS-B equipped aircraft with a faster update rate than radar. 

With NextGen, more precise departure and arrival paths will optimize routing and operations, especially for metropolitan areas, and improve access to locations previously challenged by terrestrial-based navigation.        

We are also changing the way we handle air traffic in congested metropolitan areas with NextGen.  We are working with airports, airlines, air traffic controllers, and other federal agencies to improve air traffic flow around all of the airports in busy metroplexes.

At several airports around the United States, we are using satellite-based procedures that allow aircraft to descend with engines almost idle – all the way from cruising altitude to just before landing.  This system, called optimized profile descents, is an environmentally friendly procedure that allows an aircraft to reduce engine power as it descends from cruising altitude.  These descents save fuel and cut emissions.  For example, in Phoenix, these new approaches are reducing environmental impact, and are creating a better passenger experience.

In Atlanta, we are using new NextGen departure routes to improve operations at the world’s busiest airport. Hartsfield-Jackson can clear an additional 10 planes per hour thanks to these improvements.  This reduces the amount of time planes wait to take off.  In fact, we estimate PBN saved customers 700,000 minutes, or a total of 1.3 years, waiting in line to take off in Atlanta last year. 

But under the sequester, arrivals into Atlanta could slow down.  Right now, Atlanta can handle triple arrivals, but that ability may be limited in light of air traffic controller furloughs.

We’ve also seen dramatic changes at other airports because of NextGen.  Under our Greener Skies Over Seattle program, for example, we’ve partnered with the airport, Boeing, and airlines to reduce the amount of time needed to descend into SEA-TAC.  This initiative is saving airlines an average of six minutes per flight.  This reduces the amount of fuel used, and ultimately, saves money. 

All of these upgrades are happening because of the hard work and great collaboration of many.  NextGen requires a strong partnership with all aspects of the aviation industry to evolve our airspace and how it is used.  Working with all stakeholders is crucial as we maximize benefits for everyone.  And, we will work to minimize the impacts of the sequester on NextGen implementation. 

Despite these uncertain times, I am confident in aviation’s ability to connect the world, and to provide economic benefits to many.  Airports are at the center of this activity.  They create impressions of our nation for arriving and departing passengers.  And, ultimately, they symbolize the rapid advancement in aviation that we’ve all benefitted from over the last several decades. 

Thank you for inviting me here today, and I am happy to answer any questions. 

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