Federal report knocks FAA Chicago planning

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Chicago air traffic modernization took a hit on Tuesday from a new investigation by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation inspector general. (WLS)

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A newly released report by the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general on Tuesday called out federal air traffic modernization as "overly optimistic" and specifically criticized the Chicago area for having no planned schedule for a major part of the initiative.

The FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System plans - known as NextGen - "are based on outdated plans for programs that have already experienced implementation challenges" according to the review of coast-to-coast modernization efforts.

The IG found that FAA officials painted a rosy assessment NextGen's multi-billion dollar plans, while reality was far less impressive.

Specifically, the watchdog arm of the transportation department stated that "FAA's model assumes that the Chicago metroplex will be completed in 2019, with benefits accruing starting in 2020; however, FAA currently does not have a schedule for implementing a Metroplex initiative in Chicago."

The Metroplex concept is aimed at increasing efficiencies in cities with multiple airports and complex air traffic flows. Current Metroplexes include areas of California, Texas and Florida, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Washington, DC, Charlotte, Detroit/Cleveland and Atlanta.

According to the inspector general's finding, if there is no schedule for implementing Metroplex improvements the FAA "uses the best information available to predict when implementation will occur."

The inspector general is highly critical of FAA officials for using outdated statistics forecasts for enhancing the nation's air traffic system and basing projections on improvements that have not actually happened.

House Transportation Committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), has said that NextGen is just a clever name used by the FAA to gin up money from Congress. "The name NextGen is a marketing term, not an actual technology or innovation. But it sounds catchier so they will fund it year after year" Rep. Shuster said. "The bottom line is there should be far more progress than now" Shuster added. He says the program has received $7.4 billion from Congress since 2004.

An official at the Chicago Department of Aviation declined to comment on the IG's report, saying that "this is an airspace
project and not one of ours." They referred questions to the FAA.

"Many airspace improvements that are components of the FAA's Metroplex initiative were completed in 2013 as part of the Chicago Airspace Project in anticipation of runway modernization at O'Hare Airport" said FAA spokesperson Tony Molinaro. "Additional improvements to efficiency are being explored as part of the O'Hare Runway Modernization Program" Molinaro said.

According to FAA records, NextGen projects have provided for new runway and airspace redesign at Chicago O'Hare, as well as "expanded low-visibility operations, airport surface detection equipment" and other time-saving and safety enhancing programs and equipment.

The inspector general's report tells a different story about Chicago and the modernization program across the country. "The IG also found that the FAA does not communicate the range of uncertainty or complex factors associated with NextGen implementation to Congress, aviation stakeholders, or the traveling public."

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