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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?

: Managing Risk">

Challenge: Managing Risk

The Free Flight office has its home in Washington's stately Southern Railroad building, far from FAA headquarters. "Free Flight was set up to act, look, and feel different than what people see at FAA," says acting director Thornton, a one-time controller who was fired in the 1982 PATCO strike. This is where spiral development was nurtured, a program office with its own staff, reporting to Garvey.

As it finishes its $838 million introductory mission of developing a group of projects called Free Flight Phase 1 (FFP1), Free Flight internally has the look of a winner. One indication of its newfound status: original director Keegan is now overseeing the FAA's Operational Evolution Plan, the master blueprint of modernization. "Charlie's promotion is an example of how the lessons learned here have moved there," says Thornton.

Another measure of progress is that Free Flight's leaders seem to know when to quit. In September, a program called pFast, which figures out the best runway assignments for inbound planes, was mothballed despite successful deployment and testing at the Dallas/Forth Worth airport—and $40 million spent.

This is part of the spiral method of assessing risks early on, before committing to a big rollout. Customizing pFast to work within the topographies of other cities would have been prohibitively expensive. "Making it work at six or seven early sites would be $100 million extra, and the ROI isn't there," says Thornton. "It's not a success, but it is an important signal that we are doing business differently."

By contrast, Free Flight's biggest win to date is URET, which helps reroute planes in flight, including Delta 705. Controllers love it, and airlines stand to save a lot of money with it. Models show there is an average possible savings of one to two minutes per flight in the U.S. Saving one minute per flight en route would add up to $1 billion in savings per year to the airlines in terms of fuel, salaries, and depreciation, says Dave Knorr, Free Flight Performance Metrics Manager.

"We are going after a portion of that," he says. "We saw with the prototypes in Memphis and Indy that we could capture more than one-tenth of it." If so, URET could generate savings equal to its $296.5 million development and initial rollout budget in just three years.

A large, complex program, with 625,000 lines of code that had to be integrated with the FAA's core Host Computer System, URET is a good example of the spiral development method in use. Originally developed by Mitre, a federally funded research lab, the tool was refined in close collaboration with the controllers and started delivering benefits while still a prototype. A "hardened" version of the tool produced by Lockheed Martin will be deployed to seven control facilities this year and the remaining 13 en route centers by 2005.

"Mitre got the requirements stable and let us understand the human factors. That provides a lot of value," says Lockheed Martin URET program manager Diane DeSua. "We reuse the trajectory modeling algorithms and some concepts, but our system is totally re-architected." Because Mitre's research on URET dates back so far, the software was a mix of C and PL/1 code that would have been hard to maintain long-term. Lockheed Martin did a complete rewrite in Ada.

Controllers like Ellis and Hardee in Memphis were originally promised a decision-support tool, but they soon found that URET made obsolete the paper "flight strips" on which they had always kept track of a plane's flight data. Somewhat narrower than an index card, these strips kept controllers apprised of air speed, altitude, and direction.

Now data are posted on screen. Constant updates and easy visibility allow quicker reactions to changing conditions, so they can track more routes further into the future, optimize flight paths for more planes at once, and get more information on routing changes to the Host computer. "It was advertised as a tactical support tool, but we saw that with a few modifications it could be more than that," says Hardee. "It was our suggestion that we be able to send flight plan amendments directly to the Host computer."

Knorr says controllers can process up to 60% more amendments, or changes to flight plans en route, and that changes that once didn't get entered into the system if controllers were busy are now available for everyone to see and use.

"We were aware of the spiral approach all the way along," says Ellis. Controllers used to getting complete systems dumped in their laps have had input on usability. "They are real open to suggestions we have, even now," says Ellis. True, says Jesse Wijnjtes, URET project manager at Free Flight. "We are just now moving into feedback from our initial seven deployments, so we can continue to improve as it rolls out to the remaining centers next year."

Another difference between URET and previous projects is that Lockheed Martin maintains responsibility for software maintenance and support, instead of turning it over to the FAA as has been typical in the past. That makes maintenance more expensive for the FAA, but the extra cost is meant to be offset by better service and responsiveness. Time will tell if this strategy bears out.

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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