Airline passengers fret about the lack of free Wi-Fi on planes or the nuisance of reclining seats, an air traffic control issue looms much more quietly in the background.

The U.S. economy loses as much as $33 billion a year to flight delays, with half of that attributed to economic losses passengers experience, according to the National Center for Excellence for Aviation Operations, which attributes much of the blame on the Federal Aviation Administration.

Congress, though, is a culprit, too.

Funding for the FAA expires in September, and Congress’ recent FAA reauthorization bills haven’t done much to ensure programs like NextGen, a satellite-based system geared to reduce fuel consumption, improve safety, and curb air-traffic congestion, will take off any time soon. The foundation of the FAA’s current radar, or ground-based, system dates back to the 1950s.

During its planning stages a decade ago, the NextGen plan was due to be fully operational by 2020. At the outset, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General pinned the cost of NextGen’s implementation at $20 billion each for the government and industry. The inspector general now says NextGen costs could double or triple and the program’s full implementation might take an additional decade because of the lack of progress so far.

NextGen Inaction

In a statement at a Congressional hearing last month about the reauthorization bill, Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio expressed the trade group’s frustration about NextGen’s implementation. He emphasized that one of the challenges in implementing NextGen is how the funding is appropriated rather than how much funding is budgeted.

“We understand the importance of NextGen and are passionate about it,” Calio said. “A4A member airlines provide the FAA with operational data, participate in pilot programs, and serve on countless NextGen working groups and federal advisory committees. But our consistent qualifier has been: Show us the benefits, so that we can make the business case for investment.”

Citing the $5 billion to $6 billion that the DOT Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office estimate has been spent on NextGen to date, Calio said A4A agrees that a lack of funding or technology are not the basis for shortcomings in NextGen implementation.

“Instead, internal issues related to implementation funding and procedure development and approvals often cause lengthy delays and a lack of uniform support from users,” Calio said. “… a February 2012 GAO study found that half of all NextGen projects experienced delays, and that implementation costs had exceeded estimates by $4.2 billion.”

What’s Ahead in Congress

Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, promises the 2015 FAA Reauthorization process will be “transformational.”

Hyperbole said, the committee will seek to avert a recurrence of the 2012 FAA reauthorization process, which was marred by furloughs of air traffic controllers and the FAA’s partial shutdown in August 2011 that stalled NextGen’s progress.

Reducing the FAA’s role and privatizing air traffic control was considered during previous reauthorization processes,  although the committee couldn’t confirm this is part of current discussions.

“As for official [conversations] on privatizing the FAA, there are conversations that look at ways to help structure the FAA in order to realize more benefits as discussed in the hearing,” said Jim Billimoria, a spokesperson for the committee.

Billimoria also couldn’t comment on the proposed funding or duration of the new FAA reauthorization bill, which are still unknown. The FAA’s 2012 reauthorization appropriated $63 billion to the agency.

As A4A lobbies Congress about FAA funding, the trade group is keen to point out that NextGen’s implementation in the U.S. isn’t keeping pace with other parts of the world.

“While other countries like Canada and Australia have been using satellite-based technology to manage their air traffic, the United States continues to play catch up,” said Victoria Day, a spokesperson for A4A. “Stops and starts in appropriations’ funding, combined with sequestration, have negatively impacted long-term implementation. They have also caused disproportionate harm to controllers and the traveling public.”

“U.S. carriers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to install NextGen technology on their aircraft, yet the FAA lacks the policies and procedures required to put it to use. This is like buying a high-definition smart TV when your provider only supports analog –but on a massively larger scale.”

Tags: faa
Photo Credit: An Alaska Airlines plane takes off Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. Ted S. Warren / Associated Press