FAA's Proposed Plan for Implementing a Reliability Centered Maintenance Process for Air Traffic Control Equipment

GAO-07-81R: Published: Nov 9, 2006. Publicly Released: Nov 9, 2006.

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Susan A. Fleming
(202) 512-4431


Office of Public Affairs
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The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is responsible for maintaining approximately 40,000 pieces of air traffic control equipment, such as radars, navigation beacons, communication systems, and instrument landing systems that are essential to the safe operation of the national airspace system (NAS). Currently, ATO engineers and technicians conduct routine maintenance, periodic inspections, and performance checks on air traffic control equipment to ensure that it functions properly. Recently, ATO identified another process called reliability centered maintenance (RCM) that it plans to add to the other methods it uses to maintain the equipment. RCM is a data-driven, analytical process used to determine the most value-added maintenance requirements that are needed to keep equipment functioning properly. RCM processes are used by federal and private organizations because they reduce unnecessary maintenance. ATO believes that RCM's data-driven analyses for identifying maintenance needs, combined with the equipment manufacturers' maintenance recommendations and engineers' knowledge of the air traffic control equipment, will enhance the ways that ATO maintains the equipment. Senate Report 109-109, which accompanied the Fiscal Year 2006 Appropriations Act for the Department of Transportation, asked us to analyze FAA's plans to develop an RCM process and the impact of these plans. Since FAA is just beginning to define its approach to RCM, we could not address the specific request. However, as agreed with Congressional offices, we are reporting on (1) what RCM is and where it is being used and (2) the status of ATO's plan for developing and implementing an RCM process for maintaining air traffic control equipment.

RCM is a data-driven, analytical process used to determine the most value-added maintenance requirements that are needed to keep equipment functioning properly. It requires that data be collected and analyzed on the causes and consequences of failures, in order to determine the maintenance needed to prevent future failures. For example, performance data can be analyzed to determine whether a particular component wears out with age or fails randomly--key information for deciding the maintenance approach most appropriate for that item. Generally, RCM analyses are used to identify which of three approaches is most appropriate for preventing equipment failures: (1) periodic maintenance, meaning procedures are performed at regular intervals (for example, monthly); (2) condition-based maintenance, meaning equipment is monitored but only serviced when potential problems warrant it; and (3) run-to-fault maintenance, meaning equipment is allowed to fail because maintenance would have no effect on whether (and when) equipment fails. Both federal agencies and private industry utilize RCM for their equipment maintenance. Leading organizations that introduce new processes, like RCM, develop strategic implementation plans that articulate program objectives and timetables, and commit resources for training, data collection and analysis, and other costs. ATO has announced that it intends to add an RCM process to its current methods of maintaining air traffic control equipment, which rely on recommendations made by equipment manufacturers and ATO's own expertise. Currently, ATO is in the early planning phase. At the time of our review, ATO had not yet developed a plan or identified resources for implementing an RCM process for maintaining air traffic control equipment. ATO officials told us that they hope to complete a number of steps within the next year, such as designating the ATO offices to be responsible for implementing RCM maintenance policy and procedures, providing appropriate RCM training to ATO engineers and technicians, and having ATO engineers begin using RCM to update equipment maintenance handbooks. ATO officials estimate that it will take at least 10 years before RCM can be fully implemented as part of ATO's maintenance process because more than 300 system maintenance handbooks will have to be updated. ATO officials are aware that the unions representing the agency's engineers and technicians are concerned that an RCM process will lead to unsafe air traffic control equipment. This concern has arisen, in part, because FAA experimented several years ago with a different maintenance process that union officials have criticized as unsafe, and because ATO has not explained its vision of an RCM process. ATO officials told us that they intend to work with the unions as they implement an RCM process.

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