Can FAA Salvage Its IT Disaster?

By Edward Cone 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?

PDF Download

Delta Air Lines Flight 705 from Atlanta to Salt Lake City was at cruising altitude on Feb. 27 when a female passenger began to complain of severe chest pains. Fortunately, the tool was now in place that could help an air traffic controller quickly engineer an emergency landing route into Memphis.

Spiral-development tools that speed your project planning.

This small feat represents one of the first victories the Federal Aviation Administration can claim after billions of dollars have been wasted trying to get control of air traffic over North America.

The Boeing 767-400, carrying 283 passengers, needed to make an unplanned landing in Tennessee. In an FAA facility at Memphis International Airport, air traffic controller Kenny Ellis got busy figuring out the safest and most direct route through the busy midday skies. There were more than a dozen planes just in his mid-altitude sector of the sky at the time.

Using a sophisticated new computer system called the User Request Evaluation Tool, or URET, Ellis could nearly instantly approve a flight path and coordinate with the tower controllers responsible for the plane's final approach. "URET lets you have more confidence in your decisions," says Ellis. "Just by a quick glance at the alert boxes on the left of the screen, I could see that URET didn't predict him to be in conflict with any other aircraft."

He then checked a graphical depiction of the new route, projected 20 minutes into the future and overlaid a map of his airspace and surrounding sectors. "From that display, I could see the point where his route was estimated to enter Memphis Approach Control's airspace." With the path and entry point clear, he was able to okay the best possible emergency route.

Better en route traffic management could save hundreds of millions of dollars per year in lost time and fuel costs for airlines operating in the United States, the ultimate end-users of this new system. The FAA hopes URET will eliminate as much as $100 million of the estimated $1 billion in routing-related waste that accrues, flight by flight, across the civil aviation system each year. Early indications are that that goal may be exceeded.

Memphis was a key test-site before URET's national rollout began in late 2001. One early beneficiary: Federal Express, the package delivery firm, which uses Memphis as its main hub for receiving, sorting and resending packages destined for all parts of the United States. With the new URET system, all FedEx planes get optimal routes. The freight shipper runs 130 planes a night out of Memphis. Ninety have standard, "most-efficient'' routes. The other 40 now get fast routes designed by URET, where only a handful got assistance before.

"The staffing is minimal on the midnight shift, but the box-haulers want to go as far down the road as they can on a direct path," says Memphis-based air traffic controller Phillip Hardee. The fewer en route course changes, the quicker and cheaper the flight. "In the past you could accommodate them according to your workload. Now, you can help them all."

Such early user satisfaction among both controllers and carriers could make URET a significant success for the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency in charge of the nation's air traffic infrastructure. The controllers get faster, easier-to-use information, the airlines save money, and passengers may get a smoother ride by avoiding storms and arrive a little earlier. In the case of Delta Flight 705 and other nearby planes, the safety level may even go up a bit as a passenger in pain is rushed to an airstrip near a waiting hospital.

But URET's on-time, close-to-budget delivery may make it something more: a demarcation point in the turnaround of what has been one of the largest and least successful information technology projects in history.

This article was originally published on 2002-04-08
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.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.