INTERVIEW: Steven Zaidman, FAA's research chief

FAA faces a long haul to modernize

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  • Steven Zaidman

    As the associate administrator for research and acquisitions at the Federal Aviation Administration since July 1998, Steven Zaidman heads a 2,000-member organization divided between FAA's Washington headquarters and the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J.

    The Research and Acquisitions Division, with other FAA organizations, designs and upgrades the infrastructure of the National Airspace System.

    In his 21-year career with FAA, Zaidman has served in several positions.

    He became acting deputy administrator for research and acquisitions in March 1998. Before that, he served as director of the Office of System Architecture and Investment Analysis.

    In 1995, Zaidman was named deputy director of the Office of Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems. He was also director of the FAA's Research and Development Service.

    Before joining FAA, Zaidman worked for the Navy.

    He holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Brooklyn College and a master's degree in operations research from George Washington University.

    GCN reporter Preeti Vasishtha interviewed Zaidman at his Washington office.

    GCN: How has the focus of your office changed since Sept. 11?

    ZAIDMAN: We have become much more security-oriented. There is an interim period in which a new agency called the Transportation Security Administration is going to be established in the department.

    But in the meantime we are not waiting. We are making sure that we are deploying explosive-detection machines in their full capacity, and we are looking for new technologies that can enhance the security of our systems.

    We've put out a solicitation both formally and informally. Through the FAA Web site, we have 13,000 responses on how the industry can help us technologically with database integration, cameras, biometrics and explosive-detection technologies.

    We are working with advisory committees and internally developing an R&D program that can best look at these ideas, put them in an environment, test and evaluate them, and work out a next-generation air transportation security network.

    GCN: What's going on at the Research and Acquisitions Division?

    ZAIDMAN: We are reviewing where we are with certain major projects regarding the air traffic system.

    Nowadays, we focus on where we are with security projects that we support.

    We talk about the health of the organization in terms of people, what's going on there, how we are hiring, the recruitment and retention and hiccups in the organization.

    We focus on programs and the Operational Evolution Plan, which will take the agency forward in the next 10 years and increase the National Airspace System's capacity to handle traffic. We look at safety systems, runway incursion technologies, airspace system modernization, new computers, new software, en route systems, tools we're developing in our Free Flight program and where we are on acquiring explosive-detection machines.

    We are trying to keep the modernization effort on track and moving forward the crisis management on some programs.

    GCN: What is the latest news about FAA's major projects?

    ZAIDMAN: The Global Positioning System technology is going very well, and so is the runway technology.

    We now have 12 systems in the Airport Movement Area Safety System that are either commissioned or in daily use. We have just commissioned a Free Flight tool called the User Request Evaluation Tool in Kansas City, Mo.

    Free Flight 1 is right on schedule, in fact, ahead of schedule.

    The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System is coming around. There are no software glitches in STARS now. In fact, we have deployed the early STARS product.

    A program that is still challenging is putting aviation weather on the controllers' displays. And the flight service automation program, which I thought could have been completed a lot quicker, is languishing.

    All in all, we have done a lot, but it's never good enough. We get a lot of critics in this job.

    GCN: FAA is looking at new security technologies. How soon will it begin buying and using them?

    ZAIDMAN: We expect to certify as early as next month the next-generation explosive-detection machinery that checks baggage. This will be a major step for us. We expect three manufacturers to come up with the technology.

    We've had a lot of success in demonstrating hardened baggage containers, which are blast-resistant. We've done a lot of work on this at the FAA center in Atlantic City, N.J. Now the challenge is to get that out in the market and find some customers.

    We are looking at initiating pilot projects with technologies that screen people for explosives in bags and biometrics devices to control access to protected areas in airports. We envision starting, next calendar year, a pilot program with these technologies.

    GCN: You said FAA had some hiccups in recruiting and retaining employees. How serious is FAA's human resources crisis?

    ZAIDMAN: It forces us to be more competitive. At the entry level, we are competitive in terms of salaries. At the higher levels, we are probably not that competitive. So the challenge for us is that we attract people in terms of work experience and interest in the job and concept of public service.

    After Sept. 11, a lot of people are considering public service, and it's also a function of the economy. In a recession, the government always does well. And in the boom times, it's always the private sector that does well.

    At FAA, we have a 90 percent retention rate, one of the highest in the government. People here not only do public service, but they have a real job. Aviation is exciting, and they see the benefits every day. By and large, people like working here.

    GCN: What's the status of the agency's National Airspace System modernization?

    ZAIDMAN: It is continuing. It's in reasonable shape as a whole. We have not dug ourselves out of the Advanced Automation System hole that we had a decade ago. That's going to take a long time.

    We have replaced the host computers; we are in the process of replacing the software; we are starting to deliver the early STARS version, and we have completed the en route display for controllers. Those taken collectively were the old AAS system. We've made a lot of progress even though we have a long way to go.

    GCN: Experts say the budget for research is shrinking, and a lot of work is being done by NASA. How does this affect FAA implementing IT for its modernization?

    ZAIDMAN: We are partnering with NASA, and we do that very well. We are focused on short- and mid-term plans, whereas NASA is focused more on mid- and long-term. We have a very good relationship with them.

    The FAA budget has not really gone down in recent years. We are close to the $200 million level in terms of security and another $500 million for the air traffic budget. So if you add that up, it's OK. We live within our means and we prioritize.

    The airspace system is very complicated. You just can't take ideas and throw them out there. It's mainly a human-driven challenge, to deal with both controllers and pilots. Technology is only one piece of it and not the greatest challenge, but a part of it.

    GCN: How have you as an FAA employee changed since Sept. 11?

    ZAIDMAN: It's a tragedy. Being in the government and a little closer to the event, you do take it personally. You get angry.

    In terms of commitment, you ask yourself, what can I do to make the world a safer place and the United States a safer place?

    Aviation is a target, and that's unfortunate. The terrorists distorted a good thing and used it as a weapon of war. Because of that you get angry. So there is a lot of incentive around here to support the war against terrorism.

    After Sept. 11, literally everybody at the FAA said, 'What can I do to help? What can I give? Call me 24-7, I just want to help.' And you see that across the country.

    At FAA, because an aircraft was chosen as the vehicle to deliver the weapon'a civil aircraft'we feel strongly that we need to help the president.

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