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By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2002-04-08 Print this article Print

Its tortuous route to modernizing air traffic control systems has cost the Federal Aviation Administration billions. Has the agency finally learned its lessons?

: Establish Credibility">

Challenge: Establish Credibility

Modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system has been a disaster story of epic proportions. The General Accounting Office estimates the cost of the push to modernize its information systems that the FAA started in 1981 will top $45 billion by 2005. Until recently, there was little to show for it. The most visible failure: the Advanced Automation System, which aimed to replace at one stroke several key computer and display systems, including the core mainframe architecture and the display screens that show controllers the planes in a given sector. That project cost more than $2.6 billion before the plug was pulled in 1994. By comparison, the Hoover Dam cost just $2.1 billion in today's dollars.

The GAO estimates $1.5 billion of the $2.6 billion was completely wasted, meaning none of the work could be salvaged. Modernization limped along for the next few years, always haunted by the FAA's record of ineptitude, which in turn made the frequently cash-strapped airlines reluctant to invest in equipment for their planes to work with the new systems.

Now, though, there is evidence that things are getting better at the FAA. "We are seeing a lot of positive signs," says GAO analyst Belva Martin, citing a change in management focus under FAA administrator Jane Garvey and the incremental development strategy behind programs such as URET. "They are moving in the right direction."

Controller Ellis, a 17-year veteran, also sees a change. "Overall, the FAA is doing better at delivering what we need."

Garvey, appointed by President Clinton in 1997, has pushed for changes in the way systems are developed and deployed. She emphasizes buy-in from users, including controllers, who have more say over the look and feel of new equipment, and cost-conscious airlines, now losing $7 billion a year, which have more input into where and when systems are deployed.

This is a critical moment for Garvey's modernization plan. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., she said in a speech to the National Air Traffic Control Association, "Our modernization plans will move ahead full throttle. Traffic will rebound. Demand will come back. Aviation is simply too important; too integral to our economy, to the fabric of our society, to our quality of life. It would be the height of irresponsibility for us to think or plan otherwise."

The Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office did suggest in a December report that the FAA pause to re-examine URET's parent program, Free Flight, and its broader plans for technology changes. The idea was raised "to assess security risks with the Free Flight concept, which technologies should receive priority, and how the agency's diverse efforts can be more effectively linked together."

However, FAA officials say they have already gone through that process and concluded they can't afford to let their plans slide. Flight delays were plaguing air passengers and freight before Sept. 11, and even with the terrorist-induced slowdown in traffic the rate of delays rose slightly in 2001, according to FAA statistics.

"Systems of this magnitude require long lead times to implement," says Amr El Sawy, general manager of the Mitre Center for Advanced Aviation Development, a federally funded research lab that works with the FAA. "What would you say when the traffic comes back? This requires consistent commitment and a consistent push on deployment."

Indeed, with the number of passengers dropping as much as 30% in the last quarter of 2001 and 350 aircraft getting taken out of the skies and parked, timing may be working in the FAA's favor. It has a chance to get its new systems in place before capacity becomes an issue at America's airports again.

Nobody inside the agency or out pretends the turnaround is complete—or that the job will ever truly be done, given the size of the system and the continuing advance of technology. Sitting in his tenth-floor office in the FAA's box-like headquarters just across the street from the Smithsonian museum complex, assistant administrator for research and acquisitions Steven Zaidman is guardedly positive. "We've got some successes, we've got some losers," says the rumpled and world-weary veteran of some of the FAA's darkest hours.

The GAO continues to flag a variety of FAA initiatives as among the government's most high-risk technology projects. A key example is the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) project to bring new technology to the controllers who manage airport arrivals and departures. STARS has grown from the $940 million project envisioned when Raytheon won the contract in 1996 to $1.4 billion, and is running about 4 years behind, with completion now expected in 2008. Even that schedule may prove ambitious if deployment of a related digital radar system continues to lag, according to the GAO.

An inspector general's office report also singled out URET for its cost, saying the FAA now estimates the first release will overshoot its original $172 million budget by 14 to 21%, meaning it will end up somewhere between $194.8 million and $207.6 million. However, the agency says that extra cost has to be measured against URET's benefits and speed of deployment.

"The knock against the FAA in the past has been that we couldn't deliver what we promised," says John Thornton, acting director of the Free Flight office responsible for URET.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
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