Flying Pickle

I fly a lot. I've got about a million miles in my frequent flyer
accounts. Sometimes my suits take on that vague kerosene smell you notice inside jets. And
I've spent many an hour bumping around in pea soup at night trying to land in crowded
places like Boston or Los Angeles.


That's usually when I start to think about the Federal Aviation Administration's
Advanced Automation System program and its inability to replace creaking equipment and
software, some of which was installed when my (long-retired) father used to take
Constellations on his business trips.


Now FAA is in a real pickle. It has to let an emergency contract to replace some of the
1970s-era hardware that is too old to maintain. One elderly IBM 9020E knocked out O'Hare
last month. But even these replacements won't arrive until 1997, and Administrator David
Hinson is blaming--you guessed it--the "cumbersome procurement and contracting
system' [GCN, Aug. 7, Page 3].


Nice try. Procurement has become a convenient scapegoat for all sorts of program ills,
all the more so since the procurement system is undergoing heated and well-deserved review
and debate. So it's a convenient "dog ate my homework' scapegoat. But, as Hinson
himself noted, if AAS had been on schedule, this emergency purchase wouldn't have been
necessary.


Hinson, to his credit, reorganized the AAS program in 1994, when it seemed hopelessly
behind schedule and over budget. Both the FAA and prime contractor IBM had simply lost
control of the software development. (Interestingly, AAS is all written in Ada, proving
that even the most rigorous methodology can go awry in inexperienced hands.)


That lack of control was--and is--a function of the program management and of poor
contractor performance, not of procurement.


The sudden need to replace host computers that are falling apart recalls that
irritating sign you've seen in some contracting officers' cubicles: "Lack of planning
on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on my part.'


Moreover, as the FAA must know, there is provision in the procurement regulations for
speeded-up buys in situations like this, bypassing much of the usual procedure. The
General Services Administration may be in disarray now, but surely it still can authorize
an emergency buy. Certainly the prospect of shutting down busy airports and snarling the
country's air traffic control is worthy of invoking this provision. One hopes FAA is
preparing its case right now.


So, though FAA is smart to be doing whatever is necessary to patch together its systems
until they can be replaced, it's a mistake to blame this one on "procurement.'


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