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U.S. aviation chief defends NextGen progress as funding cuts loom

By Matt Haldane

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday defended the "NextGen" program to modernize U.S. flight control systems, telling a government panel the effort has made progress despite delays and is "designed to be flexible."

"Overall, NextGen is on track," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a House of Representatives aviation subcommittee.

But an aviation industry group later responded that the expected cost and efficiency benefits from the program have so far not been widely realized.

The FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System program was launched to switch flight control operations from radar to GPS-based technology, allowing more traffic and reducing flight delays. The program was set up to be implemented in stages between 2012 and 2025.

Huerta said the program has had some successes, noting the deployment of 500 satellite systems at ground stations. Specific airports have already seen increases in air traffic and millions of dollars in savings, he said.

"As of this very moment, air carriers that take advantage of precision routing get into and out of airports more quickly and efficiently, which reduces fuel use, saves money and decreases aircraft exhaust emissions," Huerta said in a prepared statement.

However, several members of the subcommittee said organizational troubles within the FAA were delaying NextGen.

"There are serious concerns regarding the FAA's ability to effectively and efficiently implement NextGen," said committee Chairman Frank LoBiondo.

Calvin Scovel, the inspector general with the Department of Transportation, said government budget cuts, known as sequestration, had already halted some projects to ease congestion at U.S. airports.

The FAA faces more cuts as well. Representative Rick Larsen noted that a proposed budget recently passed by the House Appropriations Committee is 22 percent less than requested and is the lowest capital funding since 2000.

"At those funding levels, the agency would be required to restrain (NextGen) efforts greatly," Scovel noted.

But Huerta said that while the proposed cuts may cause the latest programs under NextGen to be suspended and might cost up to 700,000 jobs by 2021, the program was "flexible" enough to adapt.

"The industry and we have agreed that it would be prudent for us to have a clear sense of ... priorities," he said.

The DOT's Scovel, however, said the technology had not been widely adopted and that delays and costs meant the program would cost "significantly more" than the planned $40 billion and could take 10 years longer than the original 2025 deadline.

"I would urge the committee to hold the FAA's feet to the fire," Scovel said, suggesting the inspector general's office could be used to ensure the FAA meets its goals.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade organization that represents the commercial aviation industry, said in an email that the new procedures are not yet widely used.

In some cases, airlines have invested in equipping planes with GPS, but have not been able to take full advantage of the modern technology, she said, adding FAA data shows that flight delays cost airlines and consumers about $31 billion annually.

"To date, FAA has received adequate funding for NextGen," Medina said. "And it speaks to the fact that we need policies and procedures in place to enable us to use the equipment we have already invested in."

(Reporting by Matt Haldane; editing by Andre Grenon, G Crosse)

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