GAO to FAA: Keep sharp eye on ATC modernization

The two offices responsible for overseeing the modernization of the country's air traffic control system still face challenges in a number of key areas, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report states that the agencies face obstacles transforming the Federal Aviation Administration's culture, hiring new controllers, ensuring stakeholder involvement in system acquisitions and defining the roles of various agencies involved in the effort.

Housed within FAA, the Air Traffic Organization and the Joint Planning and Development Office are responsible for planning and implementing the air traffic modernization initiative.

The Air Traffic Organization is responsible for improving FAA's culture, structure and processes as well as the air traffic control modernization program's performance and accountability. The Joint Planning and Development Office, comprised of seven agencies, coordinates federal and nonfederal stakeholders in planning the next-generation air transportation system, or NGATS. The system is expected to handle three times more air traffic by 2025 than there is today. The agencies are the Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation departments, FAA, NASA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Although the Air Traffic Organization, as a performance-based entity, has streamlined its management and started to revise its acquisition process to be more accountable, it must continue its efforts to institutionalize these initiatives, the GAO report said.

Specifically, it must sustain its transformation to a results-oriented culture and hire and train thousands of air traffic controllers, the report said. It also must ensure stakeholder involvement in major systems acquisitions, such as the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure, and keep them on schedule and within budget, the report said.

While the Joint Planning and Development Office has facilitated collaboration among various federal agencies in planning NGATS, it must continue to use partner agencies' resources in defining the roles and duties of the agencies involved, the report said. The Defense Department's network-centric systems, for example, are being considered as a framework to provide a common view of the national airspace systems to its users, not only in the Defense Department, but also in FAA and DHS.

The Joint Planning and Development Office "could find it difficult to sustain the support of nonfederal stakeholders over the longer term and has had difficulty obtaining the participation of current air traffic controllers," the report said.

The air traffic control system is composed of several subsystems, including radars, automatic data-processing, navigation and communication equipment, and air traffic control facilities. They work in tandem to support aircraft flying in U.S. airspace. It also includes FAA employees who manage, operate and maintain air traffic control equipment.

The Joint Planning and Development Office is slated to have a preliminary version of the blueprint for NGATS later this year, according to GAO.

GAO has issued periodic status reports on the NGATS initiative. More than 10 years ago, the agency deemed FAA's air traffic control modernization a high-risk program because of systemic management and acquisition problems.

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