FAA prepares for critical upgrade to traffic-flow management network

 - October 12, 2007, 7:17 AM

The U.S. ATC central nervous system–known as the traffic-flow management system–has nearly outgrown its capacity, prompting the FAA to call for modernization of this critical infrastructure. The complex computer system is the heart of the National Airspace System Command Center in Herndon, Va., which continuously feeds traffic-flow information to ARTCCs, Tracons, towers, civil operators, military bases and other U.S. and overseas locations.

Developed in the mid-1980s, the current system has undergone several major upgrades, with more than 50 new capabilities added since 1998. It employs three distinct computer workstation and display technologies, using five software languages, and runs 10 different flow-control programs, with outputs to five separate control networks supporting 30 unique control programs. But its capabilities are stretched, and the FAA intends that modernization must now totally replace, rather than further update, today’s system.

Economic and political imperatives are also driving factors. Aviation is acknowledged as fueling America’s economic growth, causing FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to say that “we need to do what we can to help the industry recover, through technology, through greater efficiencies and through sensible and non-burdensome regulatory schemes.”

The FAA has requested bids, with three bidders to be awarded $2.5 million design contracts. Each will then submit proposals in November for the $100 million production contract, which is expected to be awarded in March next year.

For traffic-flow management, the FAA is exempt from accepting the traditional lowest bid since the technical proposal is significantly more important than a bidder’s contract-management proposal, and because “price is least important.” Emphasis on contract management reflects past difficulties with large programs such as WAAS, which is five years late and has nearly quadrupled in cost.