FAA manager shuns secrets

GCN Photo by Henrik G. DeGyor

'Tell the truth, no matter how bad the story is. It's never going to get any better for you.'

'FAA's Nancy Chapman

As the product team lead of the Federal Aviation Administration's billion-dollar air traffic modernization project, Nancy L. Chapman has seen controversy up close.

The En Route Automation Modernization project to upgrade hardware and software at the agency's 20 en route centers encountered some turbulence in March when Raytheon Co. alleged that competing bidder Lockheed Martin Corp. had an unfair advantage.

The company also filed a protest in February 2001 after FAA gave a sole-source award, without competition, to Lockheed Martin to upgrade the system.


The FAA's Office of Dispute Resolution for Acquisition upheld that protest, so this time, FAA plans to select two vendors to come up with a technical architecture for the system. The
Office of Dispute Resolution is managing the latest protest.

FAA will award the contract early next year and hopes to complete ERAM by 2008.

Chapman said an innovative approach can be the most successful in some modernization projects. In 1996, FAA departed from convention when it established its Acquisition Management System. AMS set up a framework to help FAA make informed decisions to implement new technologies quickly.

'Don't be afraid to be a risk-taker,' Chapman said. 'That's what we did with ERAM. We used the Acquisition Management System for that.'

Instead of taking the usual route of defining ERAM requirements in a detailed specification, Chapman wrote a requirements document that gave vendors more flexibility to develop architectures, she said. 'It permitted us to move quickly and the action was recognized by the aviation industry as a positive step,' she said.

Chapman warned against keeping secrets from employees and vendors. 'Tell the truth, no matter how bad the story is,' she said. 'It's never going to get any better for you. You have to be willing to say, I am behind six months and I need to do a risk management strategy and find out ways how I can resolve this and get back on schedule.'

Much of the hardware at FAA's en route centers has been upgraded, but some 30-year-old software written in archaic Jovial has yet to be replaced.

'We have a very rigid architecture that does not provide maximum flexibility to deploy tools at a rapid pace,' she said.

Chapman said the difficulties in implementing the project have been not technological but cultural.

People and culture

'Our challenges have been people and culture and getting people ready to accept change in how they do their work,' she said. 'When you have had software for so long, people are accustomed to having done the job for 30 years.'

Communication with employees is key to helping them get used to change. Though Chapman made sure that employees and organizations such as air traffic controllers' groups were involved with the project, there were some communication breakdowns.

'We have communicated a lot, but we needed to do more than we did,' she said. 'I needed to be out and involved a lot more with executives to make sure everyone was on board and was supportive of our attempts.'

Chapman said the lack of communication caused considerable confusion and delayed agency buy-in.

'If I had to do it over again and if I have to fault myself, then it's for not having communicated frequently enough and with the right people,' she said.

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