DOT Inspector General Testifies On FAA Progress Toward NextGen <


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DOT Inspector General Testifies On FAA Progress Toward NextGen

By Mike Mitchell

April 22, 2010 - On Wednesday, the Inspector General testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) progress in developing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The Inspector General noted significant challenges FAA must overcome to achieve its long-term goals for NextGen. 

Central to this effort is the successful implementation of ongoing modernization projects that will provide platforms for new NextGen capabilities for enhancing capacity. However, key multibillion-dollar programs have experienced problems, and the FAA has yet to fully determine their NextGen-specific requirements. These include the $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program.

Delays with this and other projects will have a cascading effect on NextGen plans now and well into the future. One critical step to avoid risks with NextGen’s cost, schedule, and capabilities is addressing gaps in partner agencies’ research and development efforts and long-term budgets and plans. 

The Inspector General noted several actions the FAA can take now to strengthen the multi-agency approach, better leverage Federal research projects, and prevent duplicative implementation efforts. 

In 2003, Congress mandated that the FAA establish the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) and that it create and carry out a plan for implementing NextGen by 2025. Congress also required the JPDO to coordinate diverse research efforts of other Federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense (DOD), Commerce, Homeland Security (DHS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). While the initial planning for NextGen focused on implementing improvements through 2025, FAA has recently refocused and emphasized improvements that can be implemented in the near and midterm, defined as between 2012 and 2018. 

The FAA faces challenges in keeping a number of modernization programs on track. These programs are critical as they represent enabling platforms for NextGen initiatives. Delays or performance shortfalls in any of these systems will impact NextGen’s development and implementation.  

For example, FAA has not yet established firm requirements that can be used to develop cost and schedule estimates for modifications to existing terminal automation systems, which will allow controllers to display and use satellite surveillance to better manage traffic. According to the FAA, it may take an additional 1 to 2 years to develop requirements for these systems and other mid-term NextGen efforts.


Technical Problems With ERAM Pose Cost and Schedule Risks for NextGen: The $2.1 billion ERAM program will replace the existing hardware and software at facilities that manage high-altitude traffic. ERAM, however, is experiencing software-related problems at FAA’s key initial operating site in Salt Lake City. These problems include radar processor failures, problems in handing off traffic between controllers, and critical flight information being paired to the wrong aircraft. The FAA is spending about $14 million per month to resolve these problems and deploy ERAM at other sites. However, these costs do not include enhancements for NextGen, which have not been established but are expected to cost several billion dollars. 

While the FAA does not believe the system to be fundamentally flawed, it has postponed the in-service and operational readiness decisions for ERAM at Salt Lake City by 6 months, both originally planned for December 2009. 

An in-service decision (ISD) authorizes deployment of a system into the operational environment. It occurs after demonstration of initial operational capability at the key test site. The decision establishes the foundation for operational readiness to be declared at key site and subsequent sites following completion of joint acceptance and inspection by the operating service organization and certification of compliance with information security requirements.  

The in-service decision is based on testing to verify performance and operational readiness. For ERAM, the Operational Readiness Decision (ORD) is the final operational readiness certification that is required for the system to become operational and no longer require retention of the HOST Computer system as a back-up. DOT has not assessed the severity of the problems with ERAM, but FAA officials are concerned about the ERAM transition at larger, more complex sites like Chicago and New York. These locations have unique airspace and operational issues that will require adaptation of the system’s software to accommodate their needs. 

FAA officials acknowledge that it is unlikely that all 20 systems will be fielded nationwide and controlling traffic on a regular basis by December 2010 as planned. FAA must take steps to ensure that problems with ERAM are resolved and make realistic adjustments to the program’s schedule. FAA must also assess what trade-offs in capabilities and adjustments to deployment plans and budgets are needed. Prolonged problems with ERAM will directly impact the implementation of NextGen efforts now and in the future, including key NextGen systems such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Data Communications. 

Failures with FAA’s Telecommunications Services Raise Questions as to System Reliability and FAA Oversight Recent problems with FAA’s Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program raise questions about whether the system can be relied on for NextGen initiatives and whether FAA is adequately overseeing the contractor. FTI is a $3.5 billion major effort to modernize communications among FAA facilities.  

An FTI failure last November delayed over 800 flights nationwide, and it took FAA and the contractor over 5 hours to diagnose, correct, and restore service. The cause of the failure was traceable to a series of problems and mistakes that occurred when the contractor was transitioning to a new fiber optic network. The incident also impacted DOD and DHS surveillance capability and raised questions about the integrity of the network. In response to the outage, FAA established review teams to examine the soundness of FTI’s management as well as the overall architecture and system design.

DOT work shows that FAA’s oversight of the contractor was not as effective as it should have been. For example, FAA had no indication that a contractor engineer had configured the network in error, which contributed to the outage.  

FAA was also unaware that an automated tool the contractor uses to generate alerts of a network failure was turned off, which is why it took 5 hours to locate the problem within the network. DOT work—and FAA assessments—show that periodic independent reviews of the existing and planned FTI architecture are also needed since FAA has already approved the same contractor to continue modernizing the FTI network. 

It remains unclear if the planned FTI network is appropriately designed or managed to support future NextGen initiatives, such as data communications between air and FAA ground systems. Therefore, it will be important for FAA to follow through on its plans to examine the broader implications of the November outage with respect to NextGen and the Agency’s management of FTI. 

FAA is coordinating with JPDO partner agencies on long-term NextGen plans, but has yet to make critical system design decisions. Moreover, DOT found significant research and development gaps that will affect progress as well as the cost, schedule, and performance of NextGen. The future NextGen system called for in JPDO planning documents is a complex, software-intensive system that relies on advanced automation to track and manage aircraft in all phases of flight.  

NASA is taking a large role in developing the complex software algorithms envisioned for NextGen capabilities. Overall, NASA’s work is fairly well aligned with JPDO plans. However, there are unresolved issues with the Department of Commerce, DOD, and DHS with respect to integrating weather information into advanced automated systems, determining joint surveillance requirements to track aircraft, incorporating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), and assessing NextGen’s human factors impact. 

FAA Has Not Made Key Decisions About the Design of the NextGen System. According to FAA, pending decisions on several key design issues will determine NextGen capabilities, timing, and costs. These include:

• Air/Ground Division of Responsibility: FAA needs to decide how much responsibility will be delegated to pilots in the cockpit and what duties will remain with controllers and FAA ground systems for tracking aircraft. 

• Level of Automation: The decision on the degree of human involvement in traffic management and separating aircraft is linked to the outcome of the division of responsibility between aircrew and controllers (and related ground systems). Possible options range from today’s largely manual flight management to a primarily automated system centered on machine-to-machine exchanges with little controller involvement. 

• Facilities Consolidation: A major factor in both capital and operating costs for NextGen is the degree to which the Agency eliminates or consolidates FAA facilities. FAA must make critical decisions on facility requirements, which in turn will significantly impact the type and number of systems needed to support NextGen. 

Continued delays in developing requirements and in making key program decisions will slow NextGen’s progress. A recent NextGen portfolio analysis, commissioned by the JPDO, already shows that some NextGen automated air and ground capabilities originally planned for 2025 may not be implemented until 2035 or later and could cost the Government and airspace users significantly more than the projected cost estimate of $40 billion.

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