National Airspace System:

Free Flight Tools Show Promise, but Implementation Challenges Remain

GAO-01-932: Published: Aug 31, 2001. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2001.

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This report reviews the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) progress on implementing the Free Flight Program, which would provide more flexibility in air traffic operations. This program would increase collaboration between FAA and the aviation community. By using a set of new automated technologies (tools) and procedures, free flight is intended to increase the capacity and efficiency of the nation's airspace system while helping to minimize delays. GAO found that the scheduled March 2002 date will be too early for FAA to make an informed investment decision about moving to phase 2 of its Free Flight Program because of significant technical and operational issues. Furthermore, FAA's schedule for deploying these tools will not allow enough time to collect enough data to fully analyze their expected benefits. Currently, FAA lacks enough data to demonstrate that these tools can be relied upon to provide accurate data.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has taken several steps from design through testing to help ensure that the User Request Evaluation can effectively work with other air traffic control systems. For example, FAA conducted extensive testing of the User Request Evaluation Tool with such key systems as the Display System Replacement, HOST, Bandwidth Manager, and Weather and Radar Processor. In addition, FAA formulated a highly detailed synchronization strategy to help ensure that the User Request Evaluation Tool would work effectively within the National Airspace System. The strategy proved successful with the contractor completing government acceptance testing during August and September 2001. On December 3, 2001, Kansas City Center declared the system ready for use.

    Recommendation: To make the most informed decision about moving to phase two of the Free Flight program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to collect and analyze sufficient data in phase 1 to ensure that the User Request Evaluation Tool can effectively work with other air traffic control systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Free Flight Program Office has developed a national training plan that describes courses, training outcomes, delivery methods, and suggested timeframes for training site personnel. Key to this training plan is the use of a core cadre of trainers, who will train site personnel who reside at the facilities to provide training to site staff. Contractor personnel and subject matter experts will also facilitate the implementation of training at each site.

    Recommendation: To make the most informed decision about moving to phase two of the Free Flight program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to improve the development and the provision of local training to enable field personnel to become proficient with the free flight tools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Free Flight Program Office has established goals for phase I based on previous experience at prototype sites. FAA has also established a formal measurement process to ensure accountability for the free flight investments. Goals and results are presented on a monthly basis through the FAA's Monthly Performance Report. Details of the measurement process are provided semi-annually through the Free Flight Performance Metrics Report, which is published every June and December. For Free Flight phase II, goals will be established for future sites based on experience from phase I. The formal measurement process will continue in Phase II to ensure accountability and provide feedback to stockholders.

    Recommendation: To make the most informed decision about moving to phase two of the Free Flight program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to determine that the goals established in phase 1 result in a positive return on investment and collect data to verify that the goals are being met at each location.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has developed a detailed set of capabilities and related costs and benefits for each tool for Phase II. FAA has also improved how system changes are communicated among all parties in order to enhance cost effectiveness. For example, FAA now provides facilities receiving the tools with briefing packages and program bulletins describing the changes being made. The agency plans to seek input from sites on ways to improve this information exchange.

    Recommendation: To make the most informed decision about moving to phase two of the Free Flight program, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to establish a detailed set of capabilities for each tool at each location for phase 2 and establish a process to document changes to them in terms of cost, schedule, and expected benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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