FAA’s Modernization Program: Clear Skies, or Still In Heavy Turbulence?

 

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program, which started ten years ago at an estimated cost of $2.1 billion, was scheduled to go into full operations last year. However, the modernization effort ran into major software and system difficulties (pdf) as outlined by the Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel in late 2010. To address the myriad of problems, the FAA decided by early 2011 to add another US $300 million and three years to the modernization effort. This amount, and schedule, change was at the low end of the range the IG said the effort might take; Scovel estimated it might need three additional years and another $200 million more than what the FAA predicted.  

With this difference in mind, I was struck by something in a recent Bloomberg News article on the status of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program that was published just before the holiday weekend and thereby didn’t garner much notice. ERAM is the replacement for the 45-year-old En Route Host computer and backup system (pdf) used at 20 FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers across the U.S. and is, the FAA states with an odd mix of literary flourish and anacronyms, “the heart of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and the pulse of the National Airspace System (NAS).”

In the article, Michael Huerta, acting chief of the FAA, says that ERAM is now on schedule and budget and that he feels “very good about where we are.”  Additionally, Jim Ullmann, regional vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) union, which has been critical of ERAM in the past, now supports Huerta’s position.

That’s great news, right?

Yet, there was also this statement in the article: “Even after Huerta’s assessment, Calvin Scovel ... is sticking with his view expressed last October that there may be more cost overruns and delays, his spokesman, David Wonnenberg, said in an interview.”

Huh?

Last October, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Scovel outlined then-existing problems with ERAM  (pdf) that, if the FAA's and NATCA’s current assessments are to be believed, have been generally addressed. So why is Scovel still holding to his previous pessimistic opinion?

One clue might be found in an April 2012 IG report on the risks to NextGen (pdf) that notes that Scovel has been performing a new audit of ERAM, to be published in the next few months. Perhaps Scovel's next depiction of the ERAM program won't be as pretty as the one the FAA and NATCA have been painting.

Checking the U. S. government IT dashboard, the Transportation Department's CIO shows ERAM has made significant progress since the beginning of the year, but, as of August 31st, he still rates ERAM as a medium risk for the fifth month in a row in both cost and schedule (it was high risk at the end of 2011). That's surprisingly, given the FAA chief’s comments, which would lead you expect at least a better rating of moderately low risk.

Scouting around the web for more information, I came across this blog by an anonymous veteran En Route Center controller by the name of George who, at least as of June, was claiming that from his personal experience ERAM was still buggy and barely ready for prime time.  

The blogger also made an interesting argument that “both the FAA and NATCA have too much political capital at stake with ERAM to be impartial with respect to the project.” He argues that in the past, NATCA could be critical of ERAM because the FAA didn’t desire controller input, but now that it is a partner with the FAA, NATCA has to be shall we say, more circumspect with its criticism. The Bloomberg article, similarly notes that with the settlement of a labor dispute three years ago, "[c]ontrollers and the FAA now have an 'unheard of' level of collaboration."

So, we apparently have a Goldilocks situation where the FAA and NATCA are all smiles about ERAM’s current state, the DOT IG is still frowning, and the DOT CIO and the anonymous NATCA controller are somewhere in the pursed-lips middle.

Maybe someone in the Risk Factor readership can shed some insight as to which bear is right?

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