Skip to Highlights

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.

Skip to Recommendations


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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.

Full Report