Auditors say FAA needs to determine effects of air traffic IT cuts

The Federal Aviation Administration is eliminating funds for some new air traffic control system projects and reducing funds for existing ones, as a result of smaller budgets expected for the next few years. The Government Accountability Office has applauded the move, but with a caveat.

FAA's willingness to make the cuts is a sign of progress in better managing its major systems since it reorganized its air traffic assets into the Air Traffic Organization last year, GAO said in a report. But auditors are concerned about effects that scaling down projects will have on air traffic modernization.

FAA has had a history of significant cost overruns and schedule delays in 13 of the 16 major air traffic modernization projects GAO reviewed for its report, released yesterday.

For example, last year FAA re-baselined one of its major programs, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, which replaces controller workstations with color displays, processors and applications. The original cost was $940 million, and the current cost of the first phase of 50 deployments is $1.5 billion.

GAO cited the fact that FAA cut three major programs or components, including parts of the next generation air-to-ground communications system, Nexcom, that were not meeting their performance targets. FAA also is reviewing all of its capital projects to reassess priorities.

'Both of these actions should help improve the chances that sufficient funding will be available for priority system acquisitions,' GAO said.

But GAO directed Transportation secretary Norman Mineta to report to Congress the air traffic modernization activities for which it is deferring, reducing or eliminating funding and the impact those funding decisions will have on FAA's ability to modernize the air traffic control system. FAA is a division of the Transportation Department.

In reaction to the report, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said that FAA's progress was based on updated milestones and cost targets. 'It's impossible for Congress to judge progress if there are no consistent benchmarks,' he said. He supported the GAO recommendation that Transportation report on FAA's air traffic modernization activities. 'Congress needs to know how ATC modernization efforts will proceed under funding reductions, and whether this could adversely affect air traffic safety,' Davis said.

Although FAA has also reduced the growth of requirements for IT projects and improved its ability to assess and manage risks associated with acquiring major air traffic control systems, it must do more, GAO said.

Other IT management steps FAA said it would take are:

  • Provide by Sept. 30 a plan to coordinate throughout its organization improvement activities through its integrated capability maturity model

  • Establish service-level reviews to ensure that IT investments more than two years old are performing satisfactorily

  • Take key steps toward development of its planned National Airspace System enterprise architecture, such as designating a committee to oversee it, a policy for implementing the architecture, and developing architecture products that meet guidance and describe the 'as is' and 'to be' environments.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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