Whitaker Gets NextGen Marching Orders From GAO


Recently confirmed FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker has received his first assignment from the Government Accountability Office, and he should be familiar with the subject matter. The GAO says Whitaker should get cracking on the NextGen air navigation modernization program. Whitaker was in charge of the program as the assistant administrator from 2013 to 2016. The GAO said the program has eaten up $14 billion so far but progress is lagging. “In recent years, FAA has had mixed success in meeting program milestones, largely due to delays from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the GAO said in a detailed report on NextGen.

The GAO notes some successes, including establishment of digital communications systems at some towers, but that it didn’t meet its goal of getting the updates into 20 towers by 2021 and is still eight short of that goal. But while staffing and other issues related to COVID account for some of the stalled progress, the GAO said better management is needed to get the job done. All four of its recommendations are directed at Whitaker and lay out what he needs to do to get the program back on track. The goal is to transition to satellite-based navigation services and digital communications throughout the system, and the FAA says it will cost $35 billion by 2030.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. “Satellite based navigation services.” Uh Oh! Just when everyone spent a lot of $$$ to put ground based ADS-B in their airplanes, NOW, they’ll spring dual diversity systems on us (like Canada) by … 2030? Great ๐Ÿ™ OH well … by then, EAGLE fuel will ruin all of our engines so there won’t be many ‘old’ GA airplanes OR pilots left.

    • I believe thatโ€™s referring to gps, not ads-b. In other words, ditch the VORs already! (No endorsement of this position is implied.)

      • I think you’re right. But, as we have seen, GPS is very easy to disrupt and I’m keeping both my VOR/ILS and my ADF. As for Sat based nav services, the FAA won’t even give us the north shore of Lake Erie charts any more where a lot of Detroit to east coast traffic flies.

        If they do go antenna diversity, I will, sigh, have to upgrade the Lynx 9000, which is a top antenna and a software switch.

      • We’re going to need affordable inertial nav, or something comparable. The number of VORs flagged in NOTAMs as “not maintained” or “out of service” is huge, and GPS is not only easy to disrupt but is in fact often being disrupted by our own security services.
        Electronics are much cheaper. Maybe this can be the next phase of “Experimental/LSA” avionics capability?

      • As of 11/14/2023 there are 935 active VOR sites in the FAA domain. Some have RCOs and TAC capabilities. I do not think they will be ditched anytime soon as they are needed as a backup nav system to GPS in case of outages or interference or their need for certain flight procedures.

  2. Yeah, Larry, I picked up on that as well. While they may have been referring to more GPS based navigation capabilities, a satellite diversity ADS-B system would help fill in some of the gaps that exist in the ground-based system in the western US. So I would not be surprised if that gets pulled into the plans as well. If the deadline turns out to be 2030, I will probably be too old to fly by then, so whomever buys my Cardinal will be stuck with that bill (assuming we actually have an “approved” fuel by then). ๐Ÿ˜’

  3. As many pilots flying Garmin GFC 500 autopilots have found out, that particular digital autopilot requires GPS signals in order to operate properly because the interfacing Garmin ADAHRS source (like G5, GI 275 or a GSU 25) requires a reliable GPS signal as part of the attitude solution. I fly often out of an international airport near a military testing range where GPS (and even occasionally GLONASS) jamming is routine, many times without NOTAM. Lets look at the GFC digital autopilot issue as an example. When GPS signals are jammed or turned off by an adversary or our own DOD that autopilot can’t shoot an approach. Even if the approach is being done solely by means of non-GPS terrestrial navigation sources. Like VOR, DME or ILS. Which undermines the basic backup safety concept that if and when GPS goes down pilots and autopilots can continue to fly safely reverting to traditional ground-based navigaton signals. But the fancy GFC 500 autopilot cannot. So say you are shooting an GPS overlay LPV approach and the GPS system goes down. In that case the autopilot automatically freezes altitude and heading and it cannot revert to ILS ground-based guidance to complete the approach. The autopilot basically just gives up hope and pushes it’s own blue button. Therefore the pilot has to disconnect the autopilot and continue with hand flying the ILS. And the pilot would continue to fly any future approaches by hand until the GFC source regains GPS signals. Older legacy autopilots using traditional attitude indicators that don’t even know what GPS is would continue to fly ILS approaches unfettered. This is but one example of why all this talk of relying more and more on GPS-based navigation and ditching VORs or other legacy systems (LORAN?) might not be the best thought out plan. If the smart engineers at Garmin didn’t take the redundancy factors of GPS failure into account on a digital autopilot costing tens of thousands of dollars, how could we possibly expect bean-counting bureaucrats sitting in cubicles in Washington DC and Oklahoma City to not have similar negligence while fixating on the transition to an all space-based system? I say we can’t.