IG slams FAA's project management

A major building block of the Federal Aviation Administration's modernization strategy became operational last month, on the heels of a critical report that said FAA's assessments of its overhaul effort were unreliable.

The FAA commissioned its Wide Area Augmentation System, or WAAS, on July 10, after years of cost overruns and delays. WAAS had been in limited use, but after completing testing, it is ready for wide deployment, FAA said.

But widespread use will take more time and work, a June report from the Transportation Department Inspector General said. The FAA needs additional ground stations, and until they are deployed, the system will provide less precise performance than expected, the report said.

WAAS enhances the signal of the Global Positioning System to help small aircraft land in poor conditions at airports and airstrips that lack precision-landing systems.

General-aviation pilots are expected to benefit the most from WAAS, but on-board receivers for the signal are not widely available, limiting its usefulness. When such devices are implemented, 'WAAS will allow precision instrument approaches at thousands of runways at airports and airstrips that have little or no ground-based landing capability,' said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey.

WAAS has been beset by the same problems as many FAA acquisitions. Increased costs, schedule delays and performance problems continue to riddle the agency's major modernization programs, said the Transportation IG report, Status of FAA's Major Acquisitions. The 20 projects it reviewed cost a total of $4.3 billion more than original estimates and each was delayed between one and seven years.

FAA is starting complex, billion-dollar efforts while continuing to fund projects that have been delayed for several years. 'If FAA does not exercise more management control over its acquisitions, existing projects will be further delayed, and new projects may not start as planned,' said the report by Alexis Stefani, Transportation's principal assistant inspector general for auditing and evaluation.

Many of the 20 projects reviewed do not have reliable cost, schedule or performance criteria. 'The FAA cannot effectively plan, manage programs or meet expectation for improving the safety, security and capacity of the National Airspace System,' the report said.

FAA must update the cost, schedule and performance criteria for major acquisitions, including the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System and WAAS. Although STARS is operating at Philadelphia International Airport and two smaller facilities, it will be two years before the system can be deployed to the nation's largest airports. As a result, FAA may have to accelerate some projects and defer others, the report said.

The IG recommended that FAA use performance goals to assess progress on acquisitions. FAA staff and contractors should be held accountable for keeping projects within cost and on schedule, it said.

The STARS system is seven years behind schedule and costs $1.69 billion, 80 percent more than the original estimate of $940 million. WAAS is five years overdue and at $2.9 billion costs more than three times as much as originally expected, the report said.

The delays on these programs could push them to overlap two major projects expected to begin in a few years.

At an estimated $2.1 billion, the En Route Automation Replacement Modernization will replace aging computer hardware and software. FAA plans to spend more than $260 million annually beginning in 2005. The Next Generation Air/Ground Communications program will replace 50,000 air-to-ground radios in the National Airspace System with digital systems.

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