A new report from the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General is critical of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) progress on ADS-B implementation, pointing out delays, cost overruns and inadequate benefits. These and other problems, including inaccurate data that has led to enforcement actions against pilots, mean the FAA may not be able to fully justify the investments taxpayers and pilots have made in the system, according to the report released Sept. 24.
ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, is a cornerstone of NextGen air traffic modernization and the FAA has mandated that aircraft operating in airspace that now requires a Mode C transponder must be equipped with ADS-B Out by January 1, 2020. ADS-B Out provides position and altitude information to help controllers better manage traffic while ADS-B In, which is not included in the mandate, delivers weather and traffic information to the cockpit.
“The Inspector General’s report highlights the profound problems associated with the 2020 mandate and the FAA’s modernization program, which has seen repeated delays and cost overruns over a period of years,” says Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “The Inspector General’s findings raise significant questions about whether the system will be ready by 2020, adding to the aviation community’s confusion about when and how to equip. We look forward to working with the FAA and the aviation community to develop solutions that are cost effective and offer greater flexibility in addressing ADS-B equipage issues.”
The FAA has scheduled an Oct. 28 summit to address the challenges around ADS-B implantation and has invited Baker to serve on the steering committee for the event.
Despite the mandate, the Inspector General’s report reveals that technical problems, training delays, and other issues are preventing ADS-B technology from living up to its promise. While taxpayers already have spent $6.5 billion on ADS-B, the Inspector General valued the program’s current benefit at just $5.9 billion. And, the report suggests, the FAA’s lack of advanced technical capabilities may prevent the technology from ever producing sufficient benefits to justify the costs.
The FAA estimates only about three percent of major air carriers and 10 percent of the general aviation fleet will be equipped for ADS-B Out by the end of the 2014 fiscal year. And the Inspector General’s report suggests those low numbers are a result of factors that include the FAA’s inability to provide advanced services and the cost to equip aircraft.
“Equipping for ADS-B simply allows pilots to continue flying in the same airspace they use today at an added cost of between $5,000 and $6,000 to install the required equipment,” says Baker. “We need to look seriously at how the system can be made to deliver on its promises while considering issues like cost and portability.”
According to the report, the FAA has made progress with ADS-B but remains years away from full implementation. Although the FAA has deployed 634 ground-based radio stations in support of ADS-B, the agency has identified coverage gaps that could require an additional 200 radio stations. And the FAA continues to experience technical glitches and hazards that were previously identified but have yet to be resolved. In addition, the FAA must upgrade automation systems at more than 230 air traffic control facilities nationwide before the ADS-B ground infrastructure will provide benefits. Those upgrades will not be completed before 2019 at the earliest, according to the report.
In the meantime ADS-B In, the element of the system with the potential to offer significant direct benefits to pilots, can be used for “advisory purposes only,” severely limiting its usefulness for traffic and weather avoidance.
To compound the problems, there have been issues with the integrity of ADS-B In data collection, including at least one incident reported by AOPA that led to a pilot being cited for airspace violations. The association has expressed serious concerns about the safety problems that could result from inaccurate date, a fact noted in the Inspector General’s report. In its own investigation, the Inspector General’s office identified eight reports of problems with the accuracy of ADS-B In data.
The Inspector General made a series of recommendations, which the FAA has largely accepted, according to the report. These include resolving performance problems and conducting “end-to-end” testing of the ADS-B system to determine how it can be used to control traffic; expediting development of a monitoring system to assess the performance and integrity of the ADS-B system; improving communication with the aviation community; determining when and how ADS-B In capabilities can be used at busy airports; and moving quickly to a clearly defined “end state” for the ADS-B program. One more recommendation, delaying payment of subscriptions fees for ADS-B services at locations where those services are not being used, was rejected by the FAA as a violation of the terms of its contract with service providers.
The FAA now has 30 days to formally respond to the report.