FAA builds on early Free Flight success

FAA builds on early Free Flight success

BY DREW ROBB | GCN STAFF

The Federal Aviation Administration has been criticized for years for failure to deploy technology effectively to solve air traffic congestion, develop accurate arrival sequence plans and maximize runway use.

But the agency has had better success recently with its Free Flight program. Using what one official called 'spiral development' and relying heavily on mobile devices, FAA said it is meeting the program's schedule and budget.

'The old way of doing things wasn't working,' said Anthony Willett, chief of staff of FAA's Free Flight Office.

Instead of a centralized model that relied on 'ivory tower' development at headquarters, Free Flight was established to get automation aids into the hands of air traffic controllers quickly, Willett said. It aims to realize benefits for controllers and users in smaller bites rather than the traditional systemwide technology implementation.

'To make this happen, the program office began with an emphasis on using state-of-the-art communications technology to make the implementers mobile and flexible,' Willett said.

Free Flight has a 50-person team charged with deploying five new programs before 2003. To make the deadline and provide immediate benefits, the team uses a network of notebook PCs and handheld computers supported by a back end running Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 and Windows 2000 on Dell Computer Corp. servers. The network uses routers from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose Calif., and Hewlett-Packard ProCurve switches.

Flight time

The strategy has yielded results. Two components of the $800 million program have been completed on budget and on schedule, and the remaining three are set to go online before the 2003 deadline.

At the launch of Free Flight Phase 1, FAA administrator Jane Garvey said, 'We are taking a building block approach to fielding new systems to provide benefits to users as soon as possible.'

For example, FAA implemented its User Request Evaluation Tool, a system that helps controllers identify potential conflicts when pilots ask to change their flight paths for more direct routes or different altitudes, in Indianapolis and Memphis, Tenn., in 1997.

FAA says use of URET has led to reduced flying times and fuel usage and a savings of $1.5 million per month by airlines. Free Flight will deploy the system in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington and Kansas City, Mo., next year.

'Instead of doing a massive, systemwide implementation of new technology, we are deploying new automation tools to specific sites to provide the core capabilities now and will deploy them to additional sites later,' Willett said.

To meet the deadlines, Free Flight armed its team members with Vaio notebook PCs from Sony Corporation of America of Park Ridge, N.J., and Palm V handhelds from Palm Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif..

Free Flight workers use the devices to improve communication and management and enhance collaboration. As systems are deployed, workers travel across the country to train users and evaluate the hardware and software.

He said the timely management of project communication by using the mobile devices is a critical component of Free Flight's overall success.

Going mobile

'Our Free Flight program folks are in the field where they need to be working with the system users to get things done, not back in headquarters sending out instructions,' Willett said. 'Such direct field involvement and hands-on implementation would be impossible without mobile computing.'

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