FAA cuts LAAS funding, leaving program in limbo

 - March 16, 2007, 9:02 AM

After more than 15 years and $200 million in development effort, the FAA in late January canceled further expenditures on the GPS Category I local-area augmentation system (LAAS), dropped its proposed 2006 initial introduction and reclassified the project as merely research and development. Separately, although perhaps not unrelated, the agency is expected soon to issue a request for bids to supply 150 Cat I ILSs for installation across the National Airspace System over the next three years.

The LAAS announcement came as no surprise to many FAA and industry officials. Since the late 1990s the agency has been attempting to develop a viable business plan for LAAS to prove its future necessity, but to no avail. Generally, while there were small pockets of support within the airline industry and elsewhere, most operators were unenthusiastic about the acquisition, certification and training costs of moving to a satellite-based Cat I precision approach aid that would provide no clear benefit over Cat I ILS, with which they are already equipped. For most large fleet operators, only Cat III could justify such an investment.

However, FAA insiders told AIN that since development and certification of Cat I LAAS was a necessary stepping stone to Cat III approval, senior agency managers believed that user support would strengthen with successful deployment of the Cat I units and allow Cat III development to move ahead. But the startling setback of Honeywell’s Cat I LAAS initial production readiness contract, which somehow went from being 80-percent complete last May to being only 20-percent complete five months later (AIN, January 2004, page 1), coupled with FAA budget cutbacks recently dictated by the White House, effectively killed LAAS. In announcing the cancellation, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said the program would have been “extremely expensive,” and its full nationwide operational deployment could have cost $800 million.

At the same time, an industry official not connected with Honeywell told AIN that while the avionics company may have been experiencing development difficulties in achieving the required level of signal integrity and totally eliminating incidents of hazardously misleading information, the FAA also contributed to the problem when, after awarding the Cat I contract, it further tightened the system specifications. It was suggested that this issue might eventually have to be resolved in a courtroom.

On the other hand, the FAA last month was preparing to request bids for up to 150 Cat I ILSs, to be delivered at a rate of 50 systems per year. This activity follows a just completed, though not widely publicized, procurement under which 150 systems have already been purchased and are being installed. Those systems have gone mainly to smaller airports that had grown impatient with the stalled LAAS, and the new procurement program is intended to expand on this plan.

But will LAAS return another day? A view commonly expressed to AIN is that it possibly will, but only in Cat III form to meet airline requirements, and probably not before 2010. In the meantime, the FAA’s decision is expected to have a chilling effect on overseas nations that had included LAAS in their long-term plans, along with the risk that LAAS could now be perceived by government and airline planners in those nations as eventually emerging as solely a U.S. domestic system. (Nexcom, the FAA’s next-generation VHF voice/data communications concept–which the agency said will also be cut back–risks a similar fate.)

What now seems clear is that the FAA is left with ILS as its only precision approach aid for the rest of this decade. However, ILS advocates suggest that newer technologies now in development, including narrower, more precise guidance beams, could in the future reduce the signal distortions that currently preclude its use in some locations. It is also possible that the agency might now rescind its decision announced last October to cancel the original intention to provide nationwide Cat I guidance via WAAS. In the longer term, Europe’s Galileo satnav system–which is expected to offer inherently higher accuracy than GPS/WAAS when it comes on line in 2008–could provide Cat I guidance at airports where ILS is impractical, although this might raise political objections in the U.S. However, it seems extremely unlikely that the FAA would equip such airports with the microwave landing system (MLS), which is moving ahead in Europe, with installations at London Heathrow and other airports.

Yet mention of Europe’s MLS activity raises a disturbing issue for the U.S. aviation industry as well as the nation itself. A long-time industry observer, upon learning of the LAAS cancellation, said, “This decision will be very damaging to U.S. leadership and credibility in air-traffic systems,” he said. “In the late 1980s we persuaded ICAO to adopt MLS as the world’s future precision approach aid and, as a result, many nations launched major MLS development programs. But in 1995 we went back to ICAO and told them that we now had a better system, so they should scrap their MLS plans and adopt GPS and LAAS, which they agreed to do. Now we are going to tell ICAO that we’ve changed our mind again because we can’t get LAAS to work. Is it really surprising that the Europeans are taking over leadership in air-traffic technology?”