FAA Programs Over Budget, Behind Schedule

Moses Frenck

The Federal Aviation Administration “cannot effectively plan, manage programs or meet expectations for improving the safety, security and capacity of the national airspace system,” according to an audit released Monday by U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead.

Of 20 projects worth $14 billion, Mead found that 14 of them had $4.3 billion in cost overruns and 13 of those also were up to seven years behind schedule.

The projects, which were implemented to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, include development of precise satellite navigation technology, advanced weather systems for air traffic controllers and new initiatives to prevent runway collisions.

Seventy percent of the projects “have experienced cost growth, which represents significantly more than FAA’s fiscal-year 2004 $2.9 billion request for modernization,” Mead said in the audit.

“If FAA does not exercise more management control, existing projects will be further delayed and new projects may not start as planned. We recommend that FAA update the cost, schedule and performance baselines for at least the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, Integrated Terminal Weather System, Local Area Augmentation System and Wide Area Augmentation System. This updating process may require FAA to establish a new strategy that accelerates some projects and defers others.”

While STARS—designed to replace controller and maintenance workstations with color displays, faster processors and updated software—began operations in Philadelphia this past year, and recently won approval to deploy to other locations, it will be two years before it is deployed at FAA’s largest sites, including Chicago and Denver. Since 1996, the project has cost more than $1 billion—primarily for developing, not delivering systems—and an interim system that was put in place to reduce program costs as of last month still had not produced cost savings.

The weather system, developed to provide air traffic managers with a 20-minute forecast for conditions near airports, was planned to be fully deployed by 2003, but production costs jumped from $360,000 to $1 million per system. “As a result, its deployment has been stretched out until 2008, and FAA cannot execute the program as intended,” Mead said. FAA spokesperson Greg Martin conceded that “in the current environment, we have to do a better job of controlling our acquisition and operating costs, and we plan to do that.”

(Originally published in Business Travel News July 7, 2003.)