Anxieties over LAAS decision mount

 - May 9, 2008, 5:59 AM

At press time, bidders for the FAA’s Cat I local-area augmentation system (LAAS) ground station contract were awaiting a statement from the agency as to whether the program would proceed with a contract award, valued at around $800 million. After several delays during the summer, FAA officials advised the two bidders–one team being Raytheon and the French navaid company Thales (which earlier had acquired U.S. ILS maker Wilcox Electric) and the other Honeywell, Lockheed-Martin and Pelorus of Canada–that the winner would definitely be announced on September 30.

But that date came and went. Since then, according to one company official, the only word bidders have received from the FAA has been in its informal, but cryptic, request to both teams to “maintain their distance until a decision is announced.” The same company official said this has served only to compound their anxiety as the clock slowly advances to December 31, when both teams’ bids expire.

At the U.S. Air Traffic Control Association annual convention in Washington last month, attendees confirmed the reasons behind the delay, which had earlier been disclosed to AIN (November, page 1). The main reason was that the airlines were still suffering from 9/11 and could not afford to retrofit duplicate Cat I landing systems while ILS remained in widespread use. Further, WAAS would offer 250-ft DA(H) “near-Cat I” performance sooner and to vastly more non-ILS airports over a much wider area of the continental U.S. than LAAS, which is not forecast to be operational before 2005.

In addition, one insider said that a hold on the contract award had been directed by new FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, after being cautioned by her predecessor, Jane Garvey, to be careful about signing off on major programs early in her tenure. It was stated that Garvey, bolstered by enthusiastic agency officials, had signed off on two such programs in her first months in office, only to see both become expensive disasters. As a result, a confidential FAA survey of the airline industry’s need for LAAS is reported to be under way, although the source noted that an earlier response from the Air Transport Association had been “lukewarm,” with only one overnight package carrier expressing a positive interest in LAAS.

AIN’s questions about the LAAS program to FAA officials attending the ATCA event drew unanimous “no comment” responses for the record, but several informally agreed that some of the concerns published in the November issue of AIN are valid.

Airline concerns about GPS jamming were also mentioned by one individual. Another added that following a recent change in the LAAS program team leadership, the team was now completing a justification paper on the benefits of LAAS beside landing guidance (for curved approaches, for example), runway incursion avoidance and the necessity to develop, build and prove a Cat I system before moving on to Cat II and III systems. But developing Cat II and III LAAS equipment from a Cat I base, this official noted, would be “quite a technical challenge,” and had been estimated by the agency to cost “well over $50 million.”