FAA Elevates IT Effort As its Work Load Skyrockets
FAA Elevates IT Effort As its Work Load Skyrockets<@VM>Improved Equipment<@VM>FFP Takes Off
By Carole Shifrin
If confirmation were needed that the Federal Aviation Administration is a colossal customer of information technology systems and services, the operating statistics for its air traffic control services could tell the tale. They are daunting, and projections of future work load are even more intimidating.
One of the FAA's primary tasks is managing the National Airspace System (NAS), which includes 18,300 airports, 20 "en route" air route traffic control centers, 173 terminal radar approach control facilities, three oceanic centers, 460 air traffic control towers, 75 flight service stations and 4,500 air navigation facilities.
Overall, more than 616,000 pilots operating 284,000 commercial, general aviation and military aircraft use the NAS, conducting 45 million aircraft movements annually.
Anyone traveling by air recently knows that commercial traffic is climbing; airline passengers carried on 25 million commercial aircraft operations are projected to increase from 650 million this year to 1 billion in 10 years.
The boom in travel ? along with U.S. airlines' practice of funneling as many passengers as possible through connecting hubs to maximize airline efficiency ? has put increasing strain on NAS, necessitating both modernization and enhancements for increasing efficiency. Inherent in the process is the use of advanced information technology and communications, both to accommodate demand and ensure its safety.
With a rising IT budget that currently stands at more than $2.1 billion ? a quarter of its overall budget ? the FAA is one of the most important federal consumers of IT products and services such as voice and data communications, desktops and database management systems. And because IT enables so much of managing air traffic and regulating civil aviation, the FAA's primary business, it is "a very information-centric agency," said Daniel Mehan, the agency's chief information officer and assistant administrator for information services.
The agency is acquiring, developing and operating more than 400 IT services and information systems, according to its "Information Technology Strategy FY2000-FY2002," a document released by Mehan's office last autumn. Among the 400 are 49 "key corporate projects" identified by the FAA Management Board for acquisition over the next few years. These include replacing the agency's nationwide e-mail system; replacing a large number of FAA-owned and leased telecommunications assets; acquiring an advanced air-to-ground communications system to replace analog equipment; and fielding new systems to enhance the efficiency and safety of oceanic airspace.
Although airline passengers often are told that outmoded and antiquated air traffic control equipment is responsible for flight delays, FAA officials, controllers and contractors contend that accusation is no longer valid. In the last three years, the FAA has spent billions upgrading NAS infrastructure.
"We have completed modernization of the en route infrastructure, as well as a large part of the terminal infrastructure," said Steven Zaidman, the FAA's associate administrator for research and acquisitions. "The oldest piece of equipment you see here was in operation in 1997," he added during a tour of the Leesburg, Va., air route traffic control center. "It was all replaced under budget and on schedule."
The changes are visible to visitors of the agency's 20 air route centers. At all of them, computers deployed between 1986 and 1988 were replaced last year by Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management under the Host and Oceanic Computer System Replacement program.
The computers, 63 IBM G3s and 14 IBM RISC 6000 processors, are considered the lifeblood of NAS, Zaidman said. They process, coordinate and distribute information on aircraft movement throughout the nation's and nearby oceanic airspace, and are connected to all types of FAA services and facilities. Although the computers are up and running, some advanced software still is in development.
Under a contract with Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., the centers also have been equipped with new weather and radar processors to bring in and display all types of aviation-related weather data from sources such as the national lightning detection center, weather services and satellites along with the Next Generation Weather Radars.
Last month, another important piece of the infrastructure, the new Display System Replacement ATC computer system, was declared operational at Leesburg, the final center to go online in 19 months. Developed by Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., under a five-year, $1 billion contract, the system replaced 20- to 30-year-old equipment with new controller workstations, display computer hardware and software and new user interface. Newly installed Sony 20-inch color displays, giving controllers new aircraft situation capability, replaced more than 3,500 monochrome, circular radar displays in use nationwide.
Another newly installed IT system is the Harris-developed Voice Switching and Control System, which provides air-to-ground and ground-to-ground voice communications across the airspace system. Peter Challan, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for air traffic services, said the $1.4 billion system also has an independent backup power system to guard against loss of communications should there be a catastrophic power failure at the site. All systems became operational between April 1998 and May 2000.
The greater speed with which new equipment is being developed and installed reflects in part the FAA's increasing use of off-the-shelf equipment, which allows replacement components to refresh the system technologically when the original items become obsolete.
Agency officials said the acquisition strategy provides the controllers and employees in other parts of the agency with updated, technologically advanced equipment that also is tried and tested. The IBM G3s selected for the centers fit their needs, are fully expandable and also were used worldwide, Zaidman said. "We don't want to be first."
The agency also has been using product development teams that include end users of the technology, such as controllers, to make sure products are appropriate in an operational setting.
"It's been an enormous change," said Stephen Kalish, president of the civil group of Computer Sciences Corp.'s Federal Sector, a leading FAA IT contractor. "You cannot just design a 'headquarters' solution. You have to go to the field."
William Blackmer, director for safety and technology at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said contracts used to be developed and awarded from "headquarters" and when products arrived in the field, "we would say, 'What the hell did you build? This isn't what we want.' Now, the controllers are involved."
Having been burned badly before on programs to deploy advanced technologies that it now believes were too broad and overly ambitious, such as the infamous Advance Automation System, the agency also has moved to what CIO Mehan called spiral development.
"Instead of trying to do everything at once, you take a manageable piece of the functionality, a piece of what you're trying to do, and make sure you nail down the requirement, get the piece in place, and then you can build on it," he said. "I think the agency's developments are getting better in terms of timeliness in part because of this focus on manageable pieces."
Suzanne Corcoran, vice president of North American programs for Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management, a top agency IT contractor, said the emphasis on smaller program pieces, even knowing they will evolve over time, helps reduce risk and affords maximum re-use of existing systems. The FAA's use of "show-me demonstrations" also means it will not be acquiring systems that would need considerably more development.
"It's gotten easier, our requirements have been very stable," she said. "When they change, that's what gets you into trouble."
The FAA's acquisition philosophy is clear in its Free Flight Phase 1 (FFP-1) program, part of the second stage of the agency's modernization effort that builds on the critical infrastructure changes to provide enhanced capabilities.
Established by FAA Administrator Jane Garvey in October 1998, the program is designed to provide controllers and the NAS users with tangible functional enhancements, based on known technology, that can be deployed early to improve operations and then, if proved useful, extended more widely through the system.
The limited deployment means the technology can be tested in the field and elements tailored to evolving needs before the FAA commits substantial funds to a program.
The FFP-1 program office has fielded five IT tools that are proving beneficial and will be further deployed during Free Flight Phase 2 (FFP-2). "These are really new programs and a different way of doing business," said John Thornton, director of the FFP-2 program. "We have a collaboration with the industry to select what capabilities we'll try to put out in the [air traffic controllers] world."
One of the FFP-1 tools is the User Request Evaluation Tool, which draws information from flight plans, weather and winds and aircraft data to project at least 20 minutes ahead of time whether two aircraft will be closer together than the system allows. The evaluation tool then lets the controller create potential scenarios to clear the conflict and determine whether they work.
The strategic planning tool, being developed by Lockheed Martin from a Mitre Corp. prototype, has been integrated into operations in Indianapolis and Memphis, Tenn., and will go next to Kansas City, Mo., and all centers by 2005.
Another FFP-1 tool is Traffic Management Adviser, also a strategic planning device. It provides computer automation to enhance the arrival sequence planning of aircraft at major airports, especially where demand exceeds capacity, by figuring out how best to make flight adjustments en route to increase efficiency and minimize delays.
In operation at the Fort Worth, Texas, center, where there has been a 5 percent improvement in arrival operations, Traffic Management Adviser has been installed in a second center in Minneapolis and is scheduled for six more centers.
FFP-2, which begins formally in October and will overlap FFP-1, will include the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications, a program designed to create a digital communications system to reduce analog voice communications between pilots and controllers. CSC is tasked with deploying the first system to the Miami center in mid-2003.
CSC's Kalish said the system initially will send text messages, noncritical at first, and eventually graphics to screens in cockpits, allowing pilots to "see" the airspace around them.
There are still a number of large and challenging IT programs on the FAA's plate. One is Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), a $1.3 billion program begun in 1996 to upgrade the equipment used by controllers at the 173 FAA terminal air traffic control facilities. Run as a joint program with the Defense Department, STARS is being installed in up to 200 military air traffic facilities.
STARS, based on systems deployed elsewhere in the world, ran into early complaints from FAA controllers about the color display terminals and other human-factor concerns. After work by a team of controllers, vendors and FAA officials, the agency decided this spring to provide prime contractor Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass., with an additional $270 million to modify STARS to meet the controllers' concerns.
Peter Dunham, deputy manager of Raytheon's domestic air traffic control business, said initial requirements for controller and technician interface were focused on available products and did not adequately take into account the specific needs of controllers and technicians. With their involvement, work has proceeded on a design to enhance the human-computer interface to make it more acceptable, he said.
A lot of new software was required ? some of it is still under way ? but some of the new capabilities already have been deployed and are in use at FAA facilities in El Paso, Texas, and Syracuse, N.Y., where it has met with controller approval. Plans call for STARS to be installed in two more sites later this year, nine next year and more later.
Another formidable program is the $3 billion Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a nationwide network of ground-based stations, processors and communications links to provide advanced air navigation services.
WAAS, also being developed by Raytheon, seeks to remove errors and improve the accuracy of information coming from Global Positioning System satellite data, which alone do not meet FAA navigation requirements. If the standards can be met, pilots could use the data to land at thousands of airports that currently lack precision landing capability.
Tests of WAAS have resulted in accuracy readings consistently above the requirement, but there has been a problem proving the system's integrity using the FAA's certification standard. The FAA requires that WAAS will not fail to notify a pilot of incorrect data more than once in 10 million times. Now, a panel of experts has been named to develop a process by which to certify WAAS.
"WAAS was in trouble for the science of it, not for the execution of it," Zaidman said. "But we'll get there."
WAAS' cousin, the Local Area Augmentation system with an estimated value of $860 million, also would augment Global Positioning System signals and complement WAAS, further enhancing precision approach capabilities throughout the country.
While WAAS uses commercial satellites to broadcast a correction message, LAAS will use very high-frequency radio datalink from a ground-based transmitter, FAA officials said.
The agency is "letting industry partners develop LAAS with their money," Zaidman said. The technologies being put forward by two teams, led by Raytheon and Honeywell International Inc. of Morristown, N.J., will be tested against international standards, with one or both picked in 2002 or 2003, he said.
Although air traffic control systems and equipment represent a large portion of the agency's IT budget, IT is playing an important and growing role in all other segments of the FAA's work, such as in the certification of aircraft and grants to airports. Mehan said the agency also is working to extend lessons learned from NAS acquisitions to its business and administrative systems.
The breadth of the agency's IT initiatives, which entail hundreds of programs, can be seen in its five-year IT plan for fiscal 2000, available on the Web site of the Transportation Department's CIO (www.cio.ost.dot.gov).
Despite acquisition reform, the integrated product development teams and the FAA's emphasis on spiral development, Mehan said one of the most difficult jobs remaining, whether in the private sector or government, is bringing a new system, service or product online.
"It requires discipline and creativity and is fraught with peril," he said. Even successful product developments can run into problems, he noted. "The trick is to recognize quickly that you have an issue, to deal with it fairly and squarely and not sugarcoat it, and push on."