Better Future Air Travel - Thanks to a Blunder in the Past?

The FAA announced today that the team lead by ITT Corporation has been selected as "the prime contractor for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), the keystone technology to the Next Generation Air Transportation System. The new system promises to significantly reduce delays and enhance safety by using precise signals from the Global Navigation Satellite System instead of those from traditional radar to pinpoint aircraft locations."

"The contract is worth approximately $1.8 billion from 2007 to 2025. ITT Corporation will build the ADS-B ground stations and own and operate the equipment. The FAA will pay subscription charges for ADS-B broadcasts transmitted to properly equipped aircraft and air traffic control facilities."

Hopefully, ITT will be able to implement the ADS-B on time, on budget and to specification, and doesn't end up like the last major air traffic control upgrade effort called the Advanced Automation System (AAS) project.

As described by the GAO in this 1998 testimony, "the AAS which began in the early 1980s, involves FAAâ''s acquisition of modern workstations and computers that process radar and flight data for controllersâ'' use.

Because of severe cost, schedule, and technical problems, FAA restructured the automation program in 1994. The Advanced Automation System (AAS) project, divided into 5 separate segments, was the centerpiece of the program before its 1994 restructuring.

In 1983, FAA estimated the cost to develop AAS to be $2.5 billion and completion was scheduled for 1996. When International Business Machines (IBM) was awarded a development contract in 1988, after a 4-year design competition, FAA estimated the project would cost $4.8 billion and be completed in 1998. By 1994, when FAA restructured the automation program, FAA estimated the cost to develop AAS to be as much as $7.6 billion with completion as late as 2003."

We are currently living in airport hell because of AAS's failure. Yet, if the AAS system hadn't been canceled, and finally completed in 2003, we would have an air traffic system that we would be using for probably the next 30 or more years before being replaced.

Now, it is interesting to speculate about whether we are going to be better off with the ADS-B system using GPS navigation that we hopefully will have up and running by 2015 or the old AAS design that might have been finally completed four years ago using advanced radar technology.

It would make for an interesting cost-benefit analysis - maybe by screwing up 13 years ago, the FAA actually did us all a favor.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City