Improvements to flight routes in some large U.S. metro areas, part of the $42 billion NextGen air-traffic upgrade, have been halted because of automatic budget cuts, an aviation regulator and a government watchdog told Congress.

Work on the Federal Aviation Administration’s Metroplex initiative has has been pushed back because of cuts known as sequestration, Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s Inspector General, said in written testimony at a House aviation subcommittee hearing today.

“The sequester and future funding unpredictability requires the FAA to make sizable budget cuts that affect our operations and our future,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in written testimony.

While Congress and President Barack Obama finalized legislation April 27 to stave off furloughs of air-traffic controllers, which had triggered flight delays, the testimony today reveals that the agency has cut in other areas.

The Metroplex program, designed to bring improvements to some of the U.S.’s most delayed airports, is an early step in the decades-long program to modernize the air-traffic system. The FAA is developing more efficient routes for airlines using satellite technology, which will save fuel and allow more flights, according to the FAA.

“Some Metroplex activities were recently halted or delayed due to sequestration,” Scovel said at the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s aviation subcommittee. He didn’t specify the impact of the cuts.

GPS Tracking

Huerta said a lack of predictable long-term funding had hurt the agency’s ability to plan for NextGen, which will replace radar with global-positioning tracking of planes.

“While we are grateful that Congress passed budgetary flexibility for FAA to provide for a temporary solution to the FAA furloughs, this stop-gap measure does not end the ongoing challenges the sequester presents,” he said.

The FAA was required to cut $637 million by Sept. 30 from its $16 billion budget under sequestration. Congress approved the use of $253 million in funds intended for airport construction to allow the agency to avoid having to require its employees to take unpaid days off.

Scovel told the committee that the FAA’s NextGen efforts were also being slowed by the agency’s lack of planning and technology programs that have been delayed.

At six busy airports — including New York’s LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International and John F. Kennedy International – – only 3 percent of eligible flights are making use of new precision-flight routes, Scovel said.

It’s been difficult for controllers to assign aircraft the new routes when they are mixed in with planes that aren’t equipped to fly them, he said. In some cases, controllers need new technology before they can clear planes to fly the routes, he said.

The hearing was called to explore why some NextGen programs have been delayed. In some cases, airlines have grown frustrated that they paid to install equipment on their planes that they can’t use, he said.

–Editors: Elizabeth Wasserman, Bernard Kohn

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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Photo Credit: Travelers standing in line at the LAX International Airport in Los Angeles in April 2013 when furloughs caused flight delays. Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press