As most followers of the FAA’s NextGen program know, the backbone of the whole thing will be the en route advanced modernization (Eram) system. Eram is a big project with a $2.15 billion price tag, and it is planned to replace today’s Host upper-airspace computer network, which has supported the NAS for close to 40 years.
Yet amid all the FAA exultation these days about NextGen at ATC conferences and in news releases and public statements by agency officials, Eram scarcely gets a mention. If the FAA were a sitcom, Eram would play the slightly crazy Uncle Edgar who gets hustled off to his room just before guests arrive, to be let out only after they’ve left.
That’s because Eram has become a serious embarrassment for the agency and, presumably, for Lockheed Martin, its builder. Contracted sole source in 2003 and touted as making up for all the shortfalls and problems of the venerable Host, Eram got off to a flying start in 2007, passing the FAA’s acceptance tests at the agency’s Technical Center with a score of more than 95 percent, a major NextGen success. It was Go for the Moon, and Eram installations were forecast to be at all 20 ARTCCs by late 2010, safely ahead of the 2012 end of IBM’s maintenance contract for Host, spare parts for which–along with elderly software experts versed in ancient Host computer lingo like Jovial and Assembler–were becoming extremely scarce. At such a heady time, no one was bothered that FAA acceptance also included responsibility for any additional future costs.
Fast forward to today, and the FAA has little to say about Eram. Uncle Edgar is rarely seen outside his room. In October, top officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the DOT Inspector General’s Office (IG) testified separately on NextGen before the House subcommittee on aviation. Each testified that Eram’s promised 2010 delivery and its $2.15 billion cost are now history, with delivery now set for 2014 and an extra $350 million added to the cost, with the IG suggesting that 2016 and an additional half a billion might be nearer the mark.
Plagued by System Anomalies
Shortly after Eram made its debut at the Tech Center in 2007, more exacting pre-operational testing at the lower-activity Salt Lake and Seattle ARTCCs started to reveal system anomalies such as misidentifying aircraft, preventing controller “handovers” and a variety of other problems requiring numerous “workarounds” to complete test routines. Primarily, these were identified to originate in the system’s 1.4 million lines of programming software, which were reportedly compounded by the lack of close management of the project’s progress since FAA acceptance. In the IG’s words, “Eram has experienced an almost continuous series of problems since its initial installations at two FAA Control Centers.” The IG also expressed concern about how well Eram would cope with the much heavier demands around high-density centers such as New York and Chicago.
One particularly embarrassing incident occurred in October 2009, when FAA officials were invited to witness the first full switchover from the Host to Eram. After 9.5 hours, escalating Eram problems forced a switch back to the Host. Nevertheless, the IG’s 2011 review revealed that Lockheed Martin had received more than $150 million in performance incentives up to that point “even though Eram was at least $350 million over budget.” In separate testimony, the GAO stated “the FAA’s contract-management vehicle not only supports but rewards and [provides incentives for] poor program-management practices.”
Unfortunately, since Eram is essentially the lynchpin of NextGen, its delays can be expected to create significant cost growth and delays in dependent programs such as ADS-B, DataComm and the system-wide information management (Swim), whose Eram interfaces are currently budgeted at $600 million, plus additional costs and delays in future applications such as trajectory-based operations.
David Grizzle, who earlier replaced Hank Krakowski as head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, recently described Eram as “the chassis on which all the NextGen functionality will be bolted.” It turns out that until all those bolts are securely tightened, the FAA will also be required to pay the collateral damage of keeping the old Host running, at between $7 and $10 million per month, according to the GAO.
Certainly, faults are to be expected during the early introductory period of a system as complex as Eram, but the FAA did not anticipate the number of faults the system has encountered. Both the IG and the GAO cited lax management of the program as a cause of the system’s faults. It is to be hoped that the recently announced amalgamation of all NextGen program managers into a single body, reporting through its yet-to-be-named chief direct to the deputy administrator, can bring order out of the current Eram chaos.