Longtime FAA watchers will remember the FAA’s advanced automation system (AAS), which was contracted in 1990 to replace the agency’s venerable Host ATC system, which had entered service 20 years earlier. AAS was to be the answer to the controllers’ every prayer, until it started to run into technical trouble. In fact, it encountered so much trouble that the FAA cancelled its development in 1994–reportedly at the strong urging of Congress–after expenditures had reached $2.6 billion, without clear indications of when it would achieve operational readiness or its final cost.
Fortunately, about $1.1 billion of the AAS program was salvaged, with its controller work stations transferred to the ARTCCs. But in the words of the then General Accounting Office (GAO), the “FAA did not recognize the technical complexity of the AAS effort, realistically estimate the resources required, adequately oversee its contractors’ activities, or effectively control system requirements.” So the Host kept going, with upgraded computer systems.
Fast forward to 2002, with the FAA award of a sole-source contract to Lockheed Martin for a new, $2.1 billion en route automation modernization (Eram) system, which would, upon completion of system deliveries at the end of 2010, “replace and significantly enhance hardware and software at facilities that manage high-altitude air traffic.” As the DOT Inspector General put it, “Eram is a foundational component of FAA’s NextGen, and is critical to meeting FAA’s goals for increasing airspace capacity and reducing flight delays.” In other words, there was no turning back.
Holding Up NextGen
By 2011, however, the IG reported that besides programmatic and contract management concerns (including paying the contractor more than $150 million in incentives even though Eram was at least $330 million over budget), testing at initial sites revealed significant software problems with the system’s core capabilities for safely managing and separating aircraft. This pushed schedules well beyond original completion dates and cost estimates, with the result that the FAA let Eram’s target completion date slip by four years to 2014, but estimated it needed an additional $330 million to achieve that goal. Separately, the IG estimated that the total cost growth could be as much as $500 million, with potential delays stretching to 2016.
By last year the IG was clearly losing patience, and it issued a 45-page strongly worded critique of the project–in terms reminiscent of the GAO’s comments on AAS–and issued 13 firm “recommendations.” The IG expressed particular concern about the effect of Eram delays on NextGen’s ADS-B, DataCom and Swim projects, each of which will require full Eram operation to function.
In its 2013 Eram report, published in August, the IG noted that its earlier reports had drawn the attention of the House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, which requested the IG to continue to monitor Eram progress and to identify key issues that could delay the program and affect NextGen initiatives.
The IG’s 2013 report stated that the FAA had made considerable progress since its 2012 report, with 11 of the 20 sites relying on Eram for full-time operation, four operating on a part-time basis and four still dependent on Host, which is now 40 years old. However, those four–located in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Miami–are much more complex than the other sites and “face unique challenges” with site-specific software requirements that could delay their initial operations. The IG also noted that the FAA has become “overly driven” by the program schedule, causing some previous requirements, such as flexible and dynamic airspace, to be downgraded to “enhancements.”
But a more pressing concern is the program budget. Eram’s average monthly spending rate has been $21.2 million, and as of February this year $132.1 million remained in the budget with 18 months of work before its August 2014 schedule goal. The IG pointed out, “If costs continue and the program spending rate does not drop significantly, the FAA will likely need additional funding to complete Eram.”
Finally, the FAA stated that should Eram funding be cut back by sequestration, the four sites operating part time and the four high-density locations not yet upgraded would operate with the old, but still dependable, Host.