Having your say

For FAA, user input is key to success of oceanic air traffic control program

Federal Aviation Administration officials and air traffic controllers and technicians are cautiously optimistic that closer cooperation will ensure that the agency's new oceanic air traffic control system progresses without any major glitches.

They have learned from experience. The FAA's 5-year-old Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System was plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays almost from the start.

STARS replaces aging computers and radar displays at 173 terminal air traffic control facilities, but lack of early input from users sent the program back to the drawing board many times. Controllers initially had human factors concerns such as menus that blocked air traffic images on the screen, which they said prohibited them from using the new technology.

This time, controllers from the three facilities that control air traffic as it crosses oceanic airspace—Oakland, Calif., Anchorage, Alaska, and New York—helped the FAA evaluate and review the candidate systems for the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) contract.

"It's a massive undertaking," said Kevin Chamness, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's liaison to the FAA's Oceanic and Offshore Integrated Product Team. "However, the approach that we've taken is to get the air traffic controllers involved early in the process and significantly involved. Because of that, I don't expect any major obstacles."

FAA officials, with the blessing of controllers, chose to negotiate a contract May 24 with Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management for its Oceans 21 system. The agreement is worth $217 million, and initial systems operations are planned for Oakland in 2003.

Like STARS—under which Raytheon Co. developed a new system for controllers based on an existing commercial system—ATOP is based on a system used in New Zealand since 1997. Lockheed Martin teamed with Airways New Zealand and Adacel Technologies Ltd. to offer the system, which FAA officials have asked Lockheed Martin to modify for the more complex U.S. airspace.

Despite ATOP's similarity to STARS, controllers have few concerns about the oceanic system from a human factors standpoint, having worked daily with an FAA expert, Chamness said.

"We've made an extreme effort as air traffic controllers to ensure that we considered all possible options before we decided to make a change in the [nondevelopmental] system, and I think we've had great success in that arena," he said. "There's no system that's been developed for another region or an.other country that you could use in our environment without some modification."

FAA officials are applying lessons learned to develop and customize new systems and new processes, said Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman. A human factors expert serves on the ATOP acquisition team and is working closely with representatives from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, she said.

Controllers from all three oceanic centers participated in demonstrations of the competing systems, said Sue Corcoran, vice president of North American programs at Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management.

FAA officials plan to have signed memorandums of agreement with controllers and technicians at all three facilities, she said.

"I think the FAA has done a good job of getting buy-in with both the technicians and controller teams from the specific sites," Corcoran said. "They've had a chance to input, see and give their opinions prior to the contract award."

Trimble was formerly a senior reporter for FCW.

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