BOX 3.2

Modernization of the Air Traffic Control System

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began modernizing its air traffic control (ATC) system in 1981 to handle expected substantial growth in air traffic, replace old equipment, and add functionality. The plan included replacing or upgrading ATC facilities, radar arrays, data processing systems, and communications equipment. Since that time, the system has been plagued by significant cost overruns, delays, and performance shortfalls, with the General Accounting Office (GAO) having designated it as a high-risk information technology initiative in 1995. As of early 1999, the FAA had spent $25 billion on the project. It estimated that another $17 billion would be spent before the project is completed in 2004—$8 billion more and 1 year later than the agency estimated in 1997.

The GAO has blamed the problems largely on the FAA's failure to develop or design an overall system architecture that had the flexibility to accommodate changing requirements and technologies. When the ATC program began, it was composed of 80 separate projects, but at one point it grew to include more than 200 projects. By 1999, only 89 projects had been completed, and 129 were still in progress 1—not including several projects that had been canceled or restructured at a cost of $2.8 billion. The largest of these canceled projects was the Advanced Automation System (AAS), which began as the centerpiece of the modernization effort and was supposed to replace and update the ATC computer hardware and software, adding new automation functions to help handle the expected increase in air traffic and allow pilots to use more fuel-efficient flight paths. Between 1981 and 1994, the estimated cost of the AAS more than doubled, from $2.5 billion to $5.9 billion, and the completion date was expected to be delayed by more than 4 years. Much of the delay was due to the need to rework portions of code to handle changing system requirements. As a result of the continuing difficulties, the AAS was replaced in 1994 by a scaled-back plan, known as the Display System Replacement program, scheduled for completion in May 2000. A related piece of the modernization program, the $1 billion Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, which was to be installed at its first airport in June 1998 has also been delayed until at least early 2000.

The FAA is beginning to change its practices in the hope of reducing the cost escalation and time delays that have plagued the modernization effort. In particular, it has begun to develop an overall architecture for the project and announced plans to hire a new chief information officer who will report directly to the FAA administrator. In addition, instead of pursuing its prior “all at once” development and deployment strategy, the FAA plans on using a phased approach as a means of better monitoring project progress and incorporating technological advances.

1Some of the high-priority projects that remain to be completed include the Integrated Terminal Weather System, intended to automatically compile real-time weather data from several sources and provide short-term weather forecasting; the Global Positioning System Augmentation Program, transferring ground-based navigation and landing systems to a system based on DOD satellites; and the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, which encompasses three projects to replace the airport radar equipment that monitors traffic on runways and taxiways. See U.S. GAO (1998), p. 9.

SOURCES: U.S. General Accounting Office (1994, 1997, 1998, 1999a,b,c),Li (1994), and O'Hara (1999).



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