FAA promises to do more homework for future realignment decisions

Friday - 6/1/2012, 5:12am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Federal Aviation Administration is preparing for a large-scale realignment of hundreds of air traffic control facilities between now and the 2030s. Meanwhile, a new inspector general audit finds the agency has made past consolidation decisions without developing enough data to determine whether they'll save money.

The FAA agrees and is promising to do better.

"FAA has not sufficiently developed the metrics necessary to evaluate the merits of various consolidation and alignment alternatives," David Grizzle, the chief operating officer of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's subcommittee on aviation Thursday.

David Grizzle, chief operating officer, Air Traffic Organization, FAA

"The criteria we used previously focused primarily on the capital costs of bricks and mortar. It was easy to apply, but it failed to address critical operating costs like contract obligations and the location-specific differences between facilities. It makes these larger issues more complex," he said.

This is more complex, but still important, he said, as the FAA tries to rationalize a national airspace system that was originally constructed based on the capabilities of 1960s-era radar technology.

But the push to consolidate and realign the control facilities isn't just about saving money. It's also about getting the agency ready for the high-tech NextGen system, which will track aircraft via satellite instead of using ground-based radios and radar. The FAA also has a multitude of old facilities that have exceeded their original lifetimes by years. To keep those facilities up and running, the agency's been spending a large chunk of its capital budget on upkeep.

IG finds cost savings lacking

It's also done some smaller-scale facility consolidations. But a Department of Transportation IG draft audit found many of those consolidations failed to produce the cost savings they promised. For Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), it's the Pentagon's Base Relocation and Closure process (BRAC) all over again.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)

"I've been through the base closure process five times since I've been in Congress," Costello said. "I've heard the secretary of defense testify about cost savings through closing and consolidating facilities, and more times than not, they've proven to be wrong … whatever action is taken, you need to come up with a metric that measures the true cost to the taxpayers, what makes sense and what doesn't."

Grizzle said developing those complex metrics would take a lot of work, but it's still something the agency needs to do.

The FAA's long-term plan, which it released in November, calls for a consolidation of the physical infrastructure the agency uses to house its controllers that track and manage aircraft both en-route to destinations and approaching or departing airports into six regions that comprise more integrated facilities.

The first phase of the project was set to begin in November and integrate air traffic control facilities in the metropolitan areas of New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey. The start date has been pushed back to May 2013 because of funding shortfalls. The FAA intends to take the lessons learned from that regional consolidation and export them to its future realignments.

Congress has taken a major interest in the consolidation of FAA facilities too. In the long-delayed FAA authorization bill lawmakers passed in February, they ordered the agency to draft a report with specific recommendations for facility realignments. Members then could choose to reject one-by-one with just a vote of disapproval from both houses. Congress told the agency to work with its unions and the airline industry to develop the recommendations.

Report due June 5

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union that represents the agency's 15,000 controllers, the FAA didn't schedule a stakeholder meeting to hammer out the details of the report until June 5 — slightly more than a week before the report is due to Congress.

"Let's get serious here," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). "Come on. We're going to have something comprehensive nine days after you sit down for the first time? Don't you think you're going to ask for an extension or something here?"

"We certainly are not going to present an incomplete plan to Congress," Grizzle said.

DeFazio said he was concerned that the deadline Congress imposed was pressuring the FAA to make decisions on an accelerated timeline.

"I'm not concerned about the deadline. I'm concerned about the process, and getting a good plan that's better than your last set of random plans that didn't work so well," DeFazio said.

"We share that concern," Grizzle said. "And we cannot make right decisions without involving all of the people that are going to be involved in those decisions"

Better communication needed

The DOT IG also pointed out that FAA had done a poor job communicating with stakeholders, including its workforce, during past realignments. The result was confusion and bitterness in the ranks. In addition, NATCA said those decisions were made unilaterally.

But Paul Rinaldi, the union's president, said it doesn't have to be that way.

Paul Rinaldi, president, National Air Traffic Controllers Association

"If you go to a facility and tell people they're going to get consolidated and move across the state, obviously resistance sets in," he said. "But if you go in with a comprehensive plan that says, 'here's the game plan, we're going to build the building at this location. Here's the schools, here's the job opportunities for your spouses, here's the median cost for housing,' then [the workforce] wouldn't be that resistant because they actually have the ability to plan their future. We have to have the ability to bring a comprehensive plan that makes sense to people at the local level so they have that buy-in."

Rinaldi said the union generally supports realignments as long as they're based on sound data and can demonstrate cost savings or increased mission capabilities.

Grizzle said the recommendations the agency will send to lawmakers soon won't cover the agency's full 20-year modernization goals because the FAA only has visibility into its needs and its funding for the next few years.

He said consolidation decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, and only where they make sense.

"I believe that in the next five to eight years, you'll see progress," he said. "But it will be progress that's based on decisions that are made individually, without a bias for or against an individual facility when we begin to evaluate it."

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