Air Traffic Control:

FAA Needs to Ensure Better Coordination When Approving Air Traffic Control Systems

GAO-05-11: Published: Nov 17, 2004. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2004.

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Katherine A. Siggerud
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The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) process for ensuring that air traffic control (ATC) systems will operate safely in the national airspace system is an integral part of the agency's multibillion-dollar ATC modernization and safety effort. GAO was asked to review (1) FAA's process for approving ATC systems for safe use in the national airspace system; (2) challenges FAA has faced approving ATC systems and how these challenges affected the cost, schedule, and performance estimates of the systems; and (3) actions FAA has taken to improve its process for approving ATC systems.

FAA has separate processes for approving ground systems and certifying aircraft equipment for safe use in the national airspace system. FAA's process for approving ground systems, such as radar systems, is done in accordance with policies and procedures in FAA's Acquisition Management System. Approving ground systems, which are usually developed, owned, and operated by FAA, typically involves FAA's Air Traffic Organization determining whether a vendor is in compliance with contract requirements, followed by a rigorous test-and-evaluation process to ensure that the new system will operate safely in the national airspace system. The process for certifying aircraft equipment, which is usually developed by private companies, is done in accordance with Federal Aviation Regulations, with FAA serving as the regulator. If a system has both ground components and aircraft equipment components, then the system must go through both processes before it is approved for safe use in the national airspace system. FAA has faced challenges approving systems for safe use in the national airspace system that contributed to cost growth, delays, and performance shortfalls in deploying these systems. We identified three specific challenges through the review of 5 ATC systems and our past work. These challenges are the need to (1) involve appropriate stakeholders, such as users and technical experts, throughout the approval process; (2) ensure that the FAA offices that have responsibility for approving ground systems and certifying aircraft equipment effectively coordinate their efforts for integrated systems; and (3) accurately estimate the amount of time needed to meet complex technical requirements at the beginning of the design and development phase. FAA has taken some actions to address two of the three challenges we identified. However, FAA has not taken action to fully involve all stakeholders, such as air traffic controllers and technical experts, throughout the approval process. FAA officials believe that the agency's new Safety Management System will help ensure that the ground system approval and aircraft certification processes are better coordinated. FAA stated that coordination would improve because, as part of the new Safety Management System, the agency plans to realign its organizational structure to create a formal link between the Air Traffic Organization and the Office of Regulation and Certification. FAA expects full implementation of this system to take 3 to 5 years. We are reserving judgment on whether this change will fully address the challenge because of the early state of this effort and FAA's long-standing problems with internal coordination when approving ATC systems. As such, we believe that FAA should, in the interim, develop specific plans that describe how both internal and external coordination will occur on a system-specific basis.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of July 31st 2008, FAA has partially implemented this recommendation. In September 2005, GAO asked FAA for information on plans (developed after our report 11/2004) from at least two air traffic control systems that showed how FAA planned to meet with internal and external stakeholders early and throughout the approval process to ensure adequate coordination. FAA initially provided information about stakeholder involvement on URET and NEXCOM, but because these systems were not early enough in the approval process, GAO asked for information about stakeholder involvement from at least two other systems. FAA subsequently provided information on stakeholder involvement or plans for stakeholder involvement for two next generation air traffic control systems: Automatic Dependent Broadcast--Surveillance (ADS-B) and System-Wide Information Management (SWIM). In August 2006, FAA provided information that showed that internal and external stakeholders including controllers, were involved during the process to approve ADS-B. In July 2008, FAA provided its final SWIM out reach plan and final SWIM work plan, which describe FAA's planned involvement of many external and internal stakeholders, including Traffic Organization Vice Presidents, communities of interest, air traffic domains, DOD, DHS, and industry groups such as ATA, NBAA, AOPA, RTCA, airframe manufacturers, and hardware vendors. However, although FAA has provided evidence of involvement of stakeholders with these two next generation programs, we have recently issued a report and testimonies that describe our concerns with controller and technician involvement with broad next generation air traffic control system (NGATS)efforts. For example, in our March 2007 testimony (GAO-07-636T), we reported that air traffic control system technicians have not been part of NGATS development. In this testimony we also report that air traffic controllers are just becoming involved in development after not being part of input to NGATS since June 2005 when FAA terminated a labor liaison program that assigned air traffic controllers to major system acquisition program offices and to JPDO. JPDO officials believe that they have sufficient expertise involved in the NGATS effort at this time because some participants have prior experience as air traffic controllers. However, one stakeholder with whom we spoke said that controllers need to be part of the NGATS effort now because their expertise extends beyond equipment configuration to issues involving the NGATS vision and Concept of Operations. Similarly, a member of our expert panel expressed concern that planning for NGATS would be unsuccessful without controller participation. The input of current air traffic controllers who have recent experience controlling aircraft is important in considering human factors and safety issues because of the controllers familiarity with existing operating conditions. As a result of these outstanding concerns regarding air traffic controller and technician involvement with next generation systems, we have decided to close this recommendation with the status of not implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that key stakeholders, such as air traffic controllers, maintenance technicians, and technical experts, outside FAA's acquisitions offices and Office of Regulation and Certification, are involved early and throughout FAA's ground system approval process and to ensure better internal coordination between FAA's offices responsible for approving ground systems and certifying aircraft equipment, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop ATC system-specific plans early in the approval process that specify how and when the approving and certifying offices within FAA and other stakeholders, including controllers, maintenance technicians, technical experts, and industry representatives, will meet to ensure coordination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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