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The Creed of Spiral

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?


The Creed of Spiral Development

Free Flight was created by Garvey to bring new technologies like URET to the field more quickly. Free Flight's secret sauce is a technique called "spiral development"—known within the agency as "build a little, test a little, deploy a little"—an approach quite different from the FAA's traditional practice of delivering (or failing to deliver) enormous projects in one big package on a specified date.

Lockheed Martin is a longtime FAA contractor and the lead vendor on the $629 million URET program. "There are some differences in working with Free Flight that helped make this program successful," says Diane DeSua, director of the URET program at Lockheed Martin. "Their relationship with their users, the agreements with the unions from the beginning, working with the controllers, it all helped keep the requirements stable."

Also important was the early involvement of the airlines, which through the industry group RTCA Inc. (organized in 1935 as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) helped decide where URET should be deployed first.

Spiral development is now becoming religion within the FAA proper, and is credited in part with reviving the STARS program. Costs grew and speed had suffered as controllers objected to changes in the hardware and software they touched, and the agency ultimately agreed to make modifications to its "off- the-shelf" approach that weren't in the original plan.

Once that was decided, however, the agency worked to develop a process that would help controllers buy into plans and results. The project was restructured so the first phase would include only the hardware and software used by controllers, grafted onto the existing backend computer that tracks planes in the airport vicinity.

This Early Display Capability (EDC) was rolled out to relatively low-volume airports in El Paso, Texas, and Syracuse, N.Y., in December 1999 and January 2001, respectively. By giving controllers practical experience with the new workstations, the STARS team gathered feedback for later full-service releases.

Garvey also created a chief information officer position, now filled by former AT&T International CIO Dan Mehan. Mehan doesn't directly control air traffic systems development but has a role in setting strategy. In addition to such traditional technology tasks as upgrading the e-mail system, the CIO sets standards and promotes development and process-improvement methodologies. He also has the point on information security, more pressing after 9/11.

But the bulk of the responsibility for acquiring air traffic control hardware and software, contracting for development services, supervising the contracts, and testing new systems lies with Zaidman, the assistant administrator for research and acquisitions. Other FAA divisions set requirements for new systems and make sure safety rules are enforced.

Even with the focus on buy-in and lowering risks on big projects, there are plenty of critics who say the progress the FAA has made is inadequate. "The problem is we don't really have a grand plan," says John-Paul Clarke, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. He sees the successes the FAA points to as baby steps too incremental to solve the system's real problems, such as delays and controller productivity in the face of sometimes-overwhelming traffic volume.

With demand expected to resume its historical growth in lockstep with the nation's Gross National Product, Clarke says the FAA needs to do more to meet that demand. "What the FAA is working on is all incremental, small Band-Aids that will give you small improvements—1% or 2% here and there. We need something bold, something that will handle 50% more capacity."

The Operational Evolutionary Plan (OEP), under which the FAA tries to show how all its programs fit together, isn't a "grand plan," Clarke says. "That's let's see what we're doing and put it all together in one document."

OEP Director Charlie Keegan says the document is more than that—it's where the FAA lays out its commitments to the industry about what it will deliver and when.

Keegan, previously the founding director of the Free Flight program, says working with the industry to determine what needs to be done and setting deadlines is a big cultural change for the FAA. As for complaints that it's not enough, he declares, "We don't see any magic available." The best solution for the system's problems is to make determined, steady progress, not only on technology but also on basics like paving new runways, he says.

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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