Next Generation Air Transportation System:

Improved Risk Analysis Could Strengthen FAA's Global Interoperability Efforts

GAO-15-608: Published: Jul 29, 2015. Publicly Released: Aug 28, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Aviation industry stakeholders GAO interviewed described various factors that may affect the interoperability of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)—a complex, long-term initiative to modernize the U.S. air-traffic management (ATM) system—with other countries' ATM modernization efforts. Interoperability allows different ATM systems and procedures to accept and use each other's information and services for technical or operational purposes. One factor described by 17 of 25 stakeholders that could affect achieving global interoperability, which, in turn, can affect NextGen's interoperability efforts, is the ability of key stakeholders, particularly air navigation service providers (ANSP) from different countries, to agree on the desired outcome of ATM modernization efforts. Stakeholders also identified several conditions that could affect when international standards are developed and when nations can implement ATM modernization efforts. For example, government and industry resource constraints could delay countries' modernization efforts and thereby could delay the interoperability of NextGen with other systems.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed an international strategic plan in 2014 to guide internal efforts for coordinating and executing NextGen's global interoperability and other international activities. This plan and other supporting documents demonstrate, to varying degrees, five of the six characteristics of an effective strategy that GAO has previously identified. For example, FAA identified organizational roles, responsibilities, and coordination mechanisms and is developing activities and performance measures to achieve global interoperability. However, FAA lacks a mechanism for comprehensively identifying and assessing risks and for prioritizing resources to manage NextGen's interoperability risks, such as those resulting from the factors identified by aviation industry stakeholders GAO interviewed. According to FAA officials, potential risks to NextGen's interoperability are identified and assessed through working groups; however, FAA has not conducted a comprehensive risk assessment or analysis of threats and vulnerabilities specific to NextGen interoperability. Without a more comprehensive approach to assessing and managing risks, FAA is not well positioned to ensure that its strategy effectively mitigates all potential risks to NextGen's interoperability or to prioritize resources toward actions that will manage and mitigate those risks.

In addition to internal coordination efforts, FAA coordinates with the European Union and other foreign ANSPs on the global interoperability of their ATM modernization efforts through various mechanisms, such as through bilateral agreements and participation in regional and international working group forums. This coordination has resulted in efforts that further global interoperability, including agreement on a framework for developing global technology standards and conducting a demonstration of worldwide flight-information sharing. For example, FAA and European Union officials continue to collaborate to support the International Civil Aviation Organization's efforts to update the Aviation System Block Upgrades, which are designed to be consistently applied by countries and regions around the world to help achieve interoperability.

Why GAO Did This Study

The United States, Europe, and other countries across the world are modernizing their ATM systems. As these efforts proceed, international coordination in developing interoperable ATM systems and procedures will be necessary to support a global aviation network and ensure the seamless transition of aircraft and aviation information across national borders.

GAO was asked to review FAA's actions to achieve the interoperability of NextGen with other countries' ATM modernization efforts. This report examines (1) selected stakeholders' views on factors that might affect NextGen's global interoperability; (2) the extent to which FAA has established a strategy to effectively achieve NextGen's global interoperability; and (3) actions FAA has taken to coordinate with other countries on global interoperability. GAO reviewed documents pertaining to FAA's international strategy and collaborative efforts with foreign and domestic aviation stakeholders. GAO also interviewed FAA officials and 25 stakeholders representing different facets of the aviation industry including foreign ANSPs, manufacturers, and standards-making bodies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FAA conduct a comprehensive assessment of risks to NextGen's global interoperability and identify how this information will be used to mitigate risks and prioritize resources. In responding to a draft of the report, FAA agreed with the recommendations and discussed some of its ongoing risk assessment activities.

For more information, contact Gerald Dillingham at (202) 512-2834 or dillinghamg@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been modernizing the air-traffic control (ATC) system across the national airspace system (NAS) through its implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Europe is working on a similar transformation effort known as the "Single European Sky Air Transportation Management Research (SESAR) programme" and air navigation service providers (ANSP) in other countries, such as in Japan, China, and Australia, are also modernizing their Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. As these modernization efforts proceed worldwide, collaboration-both across FAA as well as internationally-will be critical to ensuring NextGen interoperability and development of modernized Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems and procedures that allow aircraft to seamlessly transition from one system to another. In 2015, GAO reported that FAA developed an international strategic plan in 2014 to guide internal efforts for coordinating and executing NextGen's global interoperability and other international activities. FAA describes in its international strategic plan several different international challenges that the strategy is intended to address, such as challenges associated with achieving global interoperability. According to FAA officials, potential risks to NextGen's interoperability are identified and assessed through working groups. However, FAA had not conducted a comprehensive risk assessment or analysis of threats and vulnerabilities specific to NextGen interoperability. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA conduct a risk assessment to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities to NextGen interoperability and establish timeframes for periodically re-evaluating these risks. In 2018, GAO confirmed that FAA has conducted a broad risk assessment to identify and assess threats and vulnerabilities to NextGen interoperability and has established timeframes for periodically re-evaluating these risks. FAA has identified these risks through various mechanisms that it established to implement GAO's recommendation. For example, in February 2017, FAA developed a NextGen Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) Framework to enable FAA to identify, analyze, respond, and monitor NextGen enterprise-level risks. Through this framework, FAA has identified and assessed risks to NextGen interoperability and has identified action steps to mitigate these risks. According to FAA officials, these risks are evaluated every month at the NextGen Enterprise Risk Board meeting. In addition, FAA's NextGen Segment Implementation Plan (NSIP) team identified key international harmonization risks associated with specific NextGen capabilities. Through this process, FAA has identified and evaluated NextGen interoperability risks and has established timelines to assess progress on activities to mitigate NextGen interoperability. According to FAA officials, risks are evaluated on an annual basis. Finally, FAA and the European Union (EU) have amended their existing Memorandum of Cooperation to reflect that FAA and the EU would cooperate on identifying risks, developing recommended actions to mitigate risks, and monitoring risks. Under this agreement, FAA and the SESAR have identified joint harmonization risks to NextGen and SESAR. Identified risks as well as those that may be identified in the future are tracked in the Harmonized Risk Registry. FAA and SESAR officials meet three times a year to reevaluate and discuss these tracked risks. By taking these actions, FAA is better positioned to ensure that its strategy effectively mitigates all potential risks to NextGen's interoperability or to prioritize resources toward actions that will manage and mitigate those risks.

    Recommendation: To implement a more effective international strategy for achieving NextGen interoperability with other nations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to conduct a risk assessment to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities to NextGen interoperability and establish timeframes for periodically re-evaluating these risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since 2004, FAA has been modernizing the U.S. air-traffic control (ATC) system through its implementation of NextGen. Europe is working on a similar transformation effort known as the "Single European Sky Air Transportation Management Research (SESAR) programme" and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in other countries are also modernizing their Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. Developing interoperable ATM systems and procedures and managing potential risks to NextGen interoperability will be necessary to support a global aviation network and to ensure the seamless transition of aircraft and aviation information across national borders. In 2015, GAO reported that FAA did not have an effective strategy for mitigating potential risks to NextGen interoperability. Specifically, FAA's 2014 international strategic plan and related documents did not describe how FAA intended to 1) mitigate risks to NextGen interoperability and 2) prioritize resources to best achieve its NextGen interoperability goals. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA identify and document actions it will undertake to mitigate risks to NextGen interoperability, using information from its risk assessment as a basis for making management decisions about how to allocate resources for these activities. In 2019, GAO confirmed that FAA has taken several steps to identify and document actions to mitigate NextGen interoperability. Specifically, FAA conducted a risk assessment to identify and assess threats and vulnerabilities to NextGen interoperability. Using information from this risk assessment, FAA identified actions to mitigate joint interoperability risks to NextGen and SESAR interoperability. As part of the U.S. and the European Union's existing Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) FAA and the SESAR Joint Undertaking are coordinating to implement these mitigation activities. FAA developed a tool to document and track mitigation activities that the MOC Coordination Committee agrees to undertake to mitigate interoperability risks. These mitigation activities are also documented in FAA's coordination plans that describe how the agency and SESAR Joint Undertaking will work together to implement these mitigation activities. According to FAA officials, risks and mitigation activities that are identified and documented in the coordination plans are also shared at the International Civil Aviation Organization meetings to ensure that the activities that FAA and SESAR are undertaking align with other international efforts and global aeronautic plans. FAA also annually updates the National Airspace System Segment Implementation Plan (NSIP) and incorporates in that plan actions to mitigate risks that have been identified from FAA's risk assessment. As part of the NSIP 2019 update, the FAA identified and documented activities that FAA would undertake to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System. According to FAA officials, to mitigate NextGen interoperability risks related to UAS, FAA participates on several international committees that are developing UAS standards to share information about U.S. efforts to integrate UAS. In addition, FAA officials stated that when allocating resources for mitigation activities, FAA assesses the extent to which the mitigation action addresses a high pressing need based on their risk assessment, and use this information to allocate resources towards apriority activities that will most effectively address the risk. As a result of taking these actions, FAA is better positioned to mitigate risks to NextGen interoperability.

    Recommendation: To implement a more effective international strategy for achieving NextGen interoperability with other nations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to identify and document actions FAA will undertake to mitigate these risks, using information from the risk assessment as a basis for making management decisions about how to allocate resources for these activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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