Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Report Faults Rollout of Air-Traffic-Control Upgrade • A Core Technology at Center of Modernization Is Cited for High Costs

The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Carey and Andy Pasztor

Sept. 23, 2014 8:36 p.m. ET

An effort to modernize the U.S. air-traffic-control system is seeing such a bumpy rollout that costs associated with some of the core technology outweigh potential benefits, according to a report soon to be released by a federal watchdog.

An audit report by the Transportation Department's inspector general, slated to be released in the next few days, raises new questions about the design, deployment and projected benefits of one of the Federal Aviation Administration's futuristic ways to enhance monitoring and management of aircraft.

The document is sharply critical about early implementation of ground-based radio installations that are part of a proposed $4.5 billion network designed to track the locations of planes more precisely than current radar. The new system, dubbed ADS-B, eventually aims to rely primarily on satellite-based navigation and tracking. The ground-based stations are designed to be an integral part of the complete ADS-B structure.

The report comes as U.S. passenger airlines enjoy the safest period in history, with no fatal accidents in more than six years, though incidents persist involving close calls between jetliners in the air and on the ground. By tracking the location of planes more precisely than current radars, the modernized system aims to enable aircraft to safely fly closer to one another, while saving both fuel and time following more efficient routes.

In the report on the new system, the inspector general found, among other things, that pilots and controllers are receiving only limited benefits from some 600 ground installations due to incomplete technology updates of automated systems intended to track aircraft.

According to the report, the FAA itself has determined that taxpayer investments in such ground-based applications "now outweigh the projected benefits of the program by as much as $588 million." The findings also emphasize that "it remains uncertain how and when the FAA will implement" advanced capabilities, "and at what cost."

Some of the general criticism mirrors reports and comments by the inspector general and his staff over the past few years directed at the FAA's overall air-traffic-modernization initiative, which it calls NextGen.

U.S. airlines remain reluctant to invest billions of dollars in onboard equipment because they are uncertain how effectively the agency will carry out its share of the program. The FAA, for its part, recently has stepped up public pressure on the industry to commit to installing ADS-B devices by the mandated deadline of 2020.

The report's findings are likely to harden positions on each side. While the inspector general faults FAA implementation of the program, the report also makes clear that full application and benefits of ADS-B depend on widespread adoption of the technology by airliners, business jets and private aircraft. ADS-B stands for "automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast."

Until now, ADS-B ground deployment—for which Exelis Inc. is the prime contractor—has been described by company and FAA officials as on time, on budget and an outstanding example of agency program management.

In comments filed with DOT, the FAA described the nationwide rollout of ground stations, which it said was completed ahead of schedule, as "a major milestone." The agency also said it has "increased the availability of service and expanded coverage" as planned, adding that "cost and schedule baselines will be revisited periodically." But "more benefits would be apparent if operators chose to equip early," according to the agency.

An Exelis spokeswoman and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the trade group for general aviation, declined to comment.

Members of Airlines for America, the major trade group for the big carriers, won't be in a hurry to put the necessary equipment on planes until there is "a clear demonstration that the FAA has developed and designed a program, as well as policies and procedures, along with training for controllers, that could deliver benefits as carriers equip," said Sharon Pinkerton, the association's senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy. By some industry estimates, ADS-B equipment could cost airlines, including regional carriers, as much as $5 billion.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the FAA's ambitious NextGen modernization initiative haven't gone well. "There's a history here," Ms. Pinkerton said, "when we have equipped our planes at great expense and then it takes the FAA three years to train controllers and design processes where we can benefit."

The report notes that the FAA has been unable to perform "end to end testing," encompassing cockpit equipment, controller stations and ground installations, because of the relatively few planes currently equipped with required technology.

The document also reveals that the Defense Department and others have doubts about the FAA's ability to face security challenges "related to cyber threats" and the "security of the ADS-B infrastructure and aircraft avionics." The report also says a more-complex version of the program, which would beam data into cockpits so that pilots could "see" the heading, altitude and speed of other airplanes around them, has so far not been "fully defined."

As of April, the FAA said it had completed the deployment of 634 ground radio installations to support the program, a point of pride and a reduction of the 792 ground stations originally projected. But the FAA office overseeing ADS-B has since identified "coverage gaps" and the need for an additional 200 stations with a price tag of $258 million, the report said.

Because the FAA "has yet to complete modernization of its air-traffic automation systems to accommodate the new ADS-B technology," only limited service is being provided to pilots and controllers.

In addition, testing has identified problems with the display of this data on FAA air-traffic automation systems in Louisville, Ky., Houston, Philadelphia and the state of Alaska. And the FAA "has not yet fully developed a system to monitor the performance and operational safety of the ground equipment and help avoid and resolve outages."

The report also noted that the FAA has warned "general aviation" pilots—mostly private pilots—they shouldn't rely on ADS-B information to separate their planes from others in the airspace. Some general-aviation pilots relying on this data "inadvertently flew their aircraft into restricted airspace that was either unmarked or incorrectly located on their ADS-B devices," the report said. The FAA subsequently cited these pilots with violations.

"Concerns such as these not only suggest significant safety risks, but could degrade users' confidence in the system and the industry's willingness to invest," the report said.

- Source:   http://online.wsj.com

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