Watchdog: FAA lacks metrics for rollout of air traffic upgrade

Better reporting could prevent information technology problems and keep costs in check, GAO finds.

The Federal Aviation Administration should develop better metrics to track the acquisition, funding and rollout of its new air traffic control system, according to government auditors.

In a report released this week, the Government Accountability Office found FAA lacks ways to measure the progress of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, an initiative that replaces the current aviation system with more advanced technology. This could prevent project managers from identifying and addressing concerns in a timely manner, the report (GAO-10-629) said. FAA has reporting tools in place, but these systems aren't always linked to NextGen outcomes, GAO found.

"These mechanisms are insufficient to report on the status of NextGen portfolios or how delays and cost overruns in one acquisition can impact the implementation of other programs or capabilities," GAO wrote.

FAA is tracking 30 NextGen acquisitions through its Simplified Program Information Reporting and Evaluation database, which produces reports on the status of specific projects. But GAO questioned the accuracy and reliability of the reports and found that comprehensive metrics haven't been established for some programs, including the En-Route Automation Modernization system, which provides flight information to terminal control facilities and traffic management systems.

ERAM, which was in testing in Seattle and Salt Lake City, has had radar processing failures, difficulties in passing traffic between controllers and problems assigning identifying information to specific aircraft. This technology is essential for other NextGen components, including the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast system, which uses GPS-based technology to transmit a plane's location to towers on the ground and to other aircraft.

FAA still is working to fix nearly 200 ERAM software errors before resuming testing and has acknowledged the system is unlikely to be deployed nationwide by the end of the year as scheduled. According to GAO, measurements tracking programs' schedules and costs could provide an early warning of problems, allowing project managers to address the issues sooner.

GAO also said FAA's Acquisition Management System wasn't designed to integrate NextGen-specific acquisitions, and only half the development projects have been entered into a portfolio management tool used to track key milestones and funding.

Finally, the report found FAA's metrics don't always measure outcomes or progress toward goals, nor do they address critical NextGen capabilities. For example, the agency's annual performance report includes data on operational errors but not on safety management.

The Transportation Department, which includes FAA, agreed to consider GAO's findings.

NEXT STORY: A Demo From the Commander in Chief