WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday defended the "NextGen" program to modernize flight control systems, telling a government subcommittee the effort has made progress despite delays and is "designed to be flexible."
"Overall, NextGen is on track," Michael Huerta told a House of Representatives aviation subcommittee.
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.
However, several members of the subcommittee, and Calvin Scovel, the inspector general with the Department of Transportation, said organizational troubles within the FAA were delaying NextGen.
"There are serious concerns regarding the FAA's ability to effectively and efficiently implement NextGen," committee Chairman Frank LoBiondo said in prepared remarks.
The DOT's Scovel said government budget cuts known as sequestration had already halted some projects to ease congestion at airports.
And 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 said.
Huerta said that, although the proposed cuts could cause the latest programs under NextGen to be suspended, and might cost 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.
Huerta also said the program has had some successes, noting the deployment of 500 satellite systems at ground stations. He said specific airports have already seen increases in air traffic and millions of dollars in savings.
Scovel, however, said the technology had not been widely adopted and that delays and costs were challenges for NextGen.
He referenced a 2009 study that concluded 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.
(Reporting by Matt Haldane. Editing by Andre Grenon)
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