Major Air Traffic Control Upgrade Broken, Again And Again, And …
A mismanaged Federal Aviation Administration project is highlighting the agency’s failure to correct issues with its air traffic control redesign.
The FAA often boasts that its Next Generation Air Transportation System – better known as NextGen – will more efficiently manage far more air traffic than the system it replaces. But projections of cost and completion dates – now $32 billion and 2030 – have been revised so frequently since the project’s 2003 launch that they are now widely doubted.
Glitches in one NextGen program often cause costly delays for the whole project, according to repeated reports by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general. Unlike other government IT programs, however, flaws in the air traffic control system not only can delay flights, they can also result in plane crashes and fatalities.
But like other government IT programs, keeping track of NextGen’s decade-plus of spending, schedule changes, revisions in specifications, congressional reviews and investigators critiques can seem impossible even for officials who do it for a living.
At the heart of NextGen is the En Route Automation Modernization component that is key to transforming air traffic control capabilities from a ground-based to a satellite-based system, according to the FAA.
That’s why problems with ERAM, ranging from technology issues to contractor mismanagement, could have a “cascading effect” on dependent projects, the IG said, causing additional cost overruns and wasted tax dollars, the IG warned as early as 2005. The watchdog has reported significant problems with ERAM at least 20 more times since then.
FAA officials announced April 30, 2015, that ERAM was “completed” at a cost of $2.5 billion, but previous IG reports cast doubt on the claim. Nearly three years earlier, the IG had reported that FAA’s “final completion date” for ERAM was “uncertain.”
Earlier, FAA officials extended their original predicted completion from 2010 for $2.1 billion to 2014 and an extra $330 million as a result of major software glitches during the system’s test runs. An IG report estimated the added spending would actually be $500 million and projected more delays.
And in 2014, Matthew Hampton, the assistant IG for aviation audits, told a Senate subcommittee ERAM’s long-term stability remained questionable. Many of its features that were essential to NextGen would not be ready by the planned 2015 launch and the FAA expected to spend another $160 million by 2016.
The 40-year-old system ERAM replaced – En Route HOST – had become obsolete in 2010.
Like many other NextGen programs, the “FAA did not establish effective controls or useful milestones during ERAM’s planning and deployment stages to address problems and ignored early warning signs,” the IG said. Without improvement, the FAA “will likely find itself repeating its past and current missteps … putting the future of NextGen at risk.”
Also, the FAA claimed ERAM was on track until December 2009, even though “there were already serious problems with the program,” the IG reported in 2012.
In fact, “staff and managers routinely did not share bad news about ERAM with FAA senior management and that senior program officials at the headquarters level actively withheld and suppressed bad news from being reported to higher levels,” the 2012 IG report continued.
Software problems with ERAM became evident as early as 2005 – five years before its expected completion. As a result, ERAM’s 2008 test launch at Salt Lake City experienced distressing problems like flight information being paired with the wrong aircraft. Sometimes, the monitors would even display nonexistent “ghost” aircraft.
Air traffic controllers had to correct flight information manually, which distracted them from their primary task of keeping commercial jetliners and cargo planes on their proper courses.
“This cumbersome process increases the risk for data entry errors and, more importantly, takes the controller’s focus away from the primary task of managing and separating aircraft,” the 2012 IG report said.
ERAM still faced software issues – including problems pairing flight data – even after the system was operating full-time at five sites. This cost the FAA $24 million per month to correct, Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee in 2012.
He also noted that there were “900 new high-priority software issues that need to be addressed.”
One software issue at the Los Angeles En-Route Air Traffic Control Center in 2014 that indicated “a serious, systemic design flaw” caused a grounding “for all flights passing through that center,” according to a National Academies of Science report.
Documents reviewed by the academy suggested “that ERAM failed essentially in its entirety (including its backup system). The results could have been catastrophic.”
Many of ERAM’s issues stem from contract mismanagement, the IG warned, also as early as 2005.
“Our ongoing work shows that initial problems with ERAM were directly traceable to weaknesses in program management and contract oversight,” Scovel said in September 2012.
The FAA paid nearly $6 million in bonuses to its ERAM contractor, Lockheed Martin, even though it was unlikely that the parameters for the bonus were met, the IG reported in 2005.
The agency subsequently “agreed not to award incentives unless the contract criteria are appropriately satisfied,” the report said.
“This is an important commitment,” the IG bluntly and uncharacteristically wrote.
The FAA, however, ultimately paid Lockheed Martin bonuses equal to nearly half of the agency’s predicted ERAM cost growth.
“FAA continued to pay the contractor incentives, including over $150 million in cost incentives for meeting target costs, even though ERAM began to experience software problems, schedule slips, and a cost overrun as much as $500 million,” the September 2012 report said.
Also, Lockheed Martin didn’t resolve known software problems before adding new features to ERAM.
The simultaneous approach increased “the likelihood of introducing problems into subsequent software builds or of re-introducing previous problems,” the 2005 report said.
Lockheed Martin deferred its comments to FAA officials.
“The FAA developed a new structure for incentives, with the contract clearly stating what the FAA expected from Lockheed Martin,” FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
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