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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?

: Stepping up Pace">

Challenge: Stepping up Pace

But URET is not immune from criticism. Former acquisitions chief Donohue agrees it's a genuine functional improvement, but says it was a long time in the making, with the original prototype created in the 1980s. Algorithms that would automatically resolve conflicts between aircraft flight paths were dropped so URET could be promoted as a "decision support tool" that controllers would find less threatening, he says.

Mitre officials say the next version of URET will give controllers conflict-resolution capability in a way they like. URET PARR (Problem Assessment Resolution and Ranking) will eventually be handed off to Lockheed Martin and refined into a component of Free Flight Phase 2.

The PARR version will further boost productivity by simultaneously analyzing multiple alternatives for assigning new flight paths and avoiding collisions with other planes. For example, instead of experimenting with trial flight plans that assign a plane to a different altitude until they hit on one that works, URET PARR would let controllers see at a glance which altitudes will work (coded green) and which won't (coded red). Controllers like this version better because it lets them make the final call.

Clearly, air traffic control modernization is not a pure software development problem. It's a systems development problem that involves hardware, software, procedures, human factors, unions, and politics.

In some ways, the challenge is different only in degree from implementing a new supply chain that depends as much on trucks and trust between partners as it does on computer software. But issues of life and death loom larger here than in corporate projects, making it much more difficult to tell users to make do with whatever functionality their software provides.

"You've got to understand people aren't telling you the product will be late or the phone call will be dropped. They're telling you that it may be less safe," says FAA CIO Mehan.

"When our systems lock up, aircraft do not stop moving," says NATCA's Blackmer. He rejects the idea that controllers are opposed to all change, saying many of them are frustrated that the modernization process isn't moving forward faster. "The AAS really is the FAA's Vietnam. Every time they think of doing something big, they say, 'Oh, no, we failed at that.' It's so ingrained within the FAA now that it paralyzes us with inaction."

And yet, the incremental approach is delivering progress where before there was virtually none. "Clearly, ATC is not going to be changed, en masse, overnight," says Agam N. Sinha, the vice president at Mitre CAASD. The FAA designed its Operational Evolutionary Plan to keep pace with the 30% growth in traffic anticipated for 2010, he notes. "Some people say that's not enough because the delays in the air traffic system are not acceptable today.''

However, a revised traffic forecast released in March suggests that the one-billion-passenger milestone the FAA expected to see in 2010 won't arrive until 2013. The FAA admits to considerable uncertainty about how quickly air traffic will recover from the impact of 9/11, but it projects that passenger statistics will continue to be depressed by about 12% through Sept. 2002. After that, the agency predicts a return to a growth rate of 4% per year.

Meanwhile, perhaps some real progress is possible. The FAA has done a better job in recent years of setting performance goals and trying to manage to them. For example, it continues to squeeze a higher rate of availability out of key systems and facilities, having boosted overall availability to 99.56% in 2001, up from just over 99% in 1992. But the fact remains that the agency is still missing its targets in several key areas, such as cutting delays and reducing controller operational errors.

"There are people who have suggested what we really need is a revolution," Sinha adds. "You can define lots of good systems that can, maybe, do the job better. But the question is, how do you get from here to there? If you're not able to define that, you're not able to solve the problem."

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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