Lengthy FAA approvals cost air traffic systems, says GAO

Lengthy FAA approvals cost air traffic systems, says GAO

FAA's approval and safety certification process for air traffic control systems takes too long, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released this week. That, in turn, contributes to the cost, delay and performance problems that have plagued systems the agency has been trying for years to develop.

'We found that three of the five [air traffic control] systems we reviewed experienced cost growth and schedule delays, in part because FAA did not always involve all necessary stakeholders, such as controllers and technical experts, throughout the approval process,' said Katherine Siggerud, GAO's physical infrastructure issues director.

More of today's new air traffic control systems are integrated, involving both ground systems and equipment used in aircraft that must work together. However, if the system has both ground and aircraft equipment components, it must go through two approval processes before it can be used in the national airspace system.

FAA said its new Safety Management System should better coordinate the ground system approval and aircraft certification processes. The agency plans to realign its organization to create a formal link between the Air Traffic Organization and Office of Regulation and Certification. But this could take three to five years.

Until then, FAA should develop specific plans that describe how internal and external coordination among controllers, maintenance technicians and industry will occur regarding air traffic controls systems. FAA should include those stakeholders early and throughout the process, GAO said.

GAO also voiced concern over whether the approval process has kept pace with changes in technology.

The agency reviewed processes for the following modernization projects:

  • Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System: a state-of-the-art control system, now in use at 25 FAA terminal radar control facilities and 17 Defense Department facilities to direct air traffic near major airports. FAA changed STARS' cost and schedule estimates for the third time in April, estimating it would cost $1.46 billion to deploy STARS at the 50 most important facilities. The cost is $500 million more for 122 fewer systems than originally planned. Controllers and technicians, who became involved only mid-process, found interface and back-up system issues with the contractor Raytheon Co.'s product, resulting in the need for more requirements. 'Not involving controllers and maintenance technicians caused FAA to revise its strategy for approving STARS, which FAA estimates added $500 million and three years to the schedule,' the report said citing FAA.


  • Wide Area Augmentation System: a GPS-based navigation and landing system that will allow precision instrument approaches at thousands of runways with little or no ground-based capability. WAAS is designed to improve the accuracy, integrity and availability of information coming from GPS satellites. WAAS will be available in limited versions throughout most of the country in 2008. FAA has decided to wait to complete WAAS as a single frequency system until a second civil aviation frequency is placed on the GPS constellation. Budget cuts also contributed to the delay, meaning WAAS will not reach full operating capability until between 2013 and 2019. The development costs are now $1.5 billion higher than originally estimated. FAA's original accelerated scheduling, lack of coordination between its aircraft certification office and acquisitions office, and technical challenges resulted in a delay meeting integrity requirements, GAO said.


  • Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications: a new e-mail-style way for controllers and pilots to communicate that would reduce operational errors from misunderstood instructions. However, FAA put the program on hold because the benefits did not outweigh the costs. FAA awarded a contract before it had a full understanding of system requirements, GAO said. System requirement changes hiked initial building costs 59 percent.


  • Local Area Augmentation System: a precision approach and landing system that enhances GPS during final approach in low visibility. The fiscal 2005 budget request eliminated its funding and moved it from an acquisition program to research to meet integrity requirements, delaying its rollout from 2006 to at least 2009.


  • Airport Surface Detection Equipment: Model X tracks aircraft and other vehicle movements on the ground at airports to prevent accidents. ASDE-X came in close to its original schedule'just five months late'and to cost baselines. FAA included stakeholders early and often, GAO said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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