Stick to the plan

Thomas R. Temin

With the Federal Aviation Administration's release of its latest plan for upgrading systems, another agency joins the crowd of would-be modernizers with checkered histories.

If all goes well, FAA's National Airspace System Operational Evolution Plan would boost air traffic 30 percent, allow closer vertical spacing of planes, serve up better weather information and let pilots choose their own flight paths [GCN, June 18, Page 12].

Although it won't improve airline food, the plan sounds a little like an old TV commercial for canned spaghetti sauce. No matter what ingredient the diner asks for, the cook cheerily replies, 'It's in there!'

Well, it was in FAA's grand design of a dozen years ago, too. The natural question is, can FAA and its contractors deliver this time?

The last, failed round of modernization not only cost billions, it ended careers prematurely and left Congress and the public mistrustful of the agency.

In one of many reports on FAA modernization issued in the early 1990s, investigators blamed change orders for much of the delay and cost overrun.

Personnel from both FAA and IBM Corp. ordered hundreds of software engineering changes. Any developer worth Level 1 on the Capability Maturity Model knows excessive midstream changes are project killers.

If FAA were an airport and its projects were planes, the agency would look like the skies over LaGuardia on a Friday afternoon. There's the En Route Communications Gateway, the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures contract and the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, to name three.

If the agency is to have any chance at juggling all its modernization efforts capably and achieving a successful outcome, FAA brass should start by laying out a strict decree: No change orders without written approval from the deputy administrator, program manager and chief information officer. Some change orders will be necessary, but they should be hard as hell to get.

Systems integration on this scale is difficult enough in the budgetary and political environment of the government. There's no need to make it harder by moving the target around.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: [email protected]


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