How FAA left the high-risk list behind

Implementing EA helps get agency off GAO's list and transition to next-gen air traffic system

In 2009, after 14 years on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list for information technology projects, the Federal Aviation Administration finally got out of the dog house. One big reason was the application of enterprise architecture.

EA was a key factor in helping the Federal Aviation Administration get its information technology projects under control and being able to demonstrate that control to GAO, said Jim Washington, FAA's chief acquisition officer. Washington spoke today at the Enterprise Architecture Conference and Expo sponsored by the Digital Government Institute in Washington, D.C.

Enterprise architecture, which is basically a blueprint for aligning business processes and information technology, became a key part of FAA acquisition reform.

That’s why Jim Washington is an EA proponent, even if he is not an EA architect. EA helps the agency understand inter-relationships between investments, minimize duplication and is essential to FAA’s modernization – the transition to the Next Generation Air Transportation System,


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FAA’s first enterprise architecture was really a statement of principles that FAA hoped to live up to, but it had very little enforcement. However, EA has evolved with greater enforcement and has become a standard part of the check list for acquisitions, the finance office and the office of the chief information officer, he said.

“In fact, we formed a triad. I chair what we call the Joint Resource Council,” Washington said. The partnership is integral to helping the three offices understand how EA knits together the investments they approve, reducing the likelihood of duplication, he said.

Washington said he is well aware of how difficult it can be to convince managers to adhere to EA, which is outside the mainstream of the organization.

FAA runs The National Airspace System, which is very complex, he said. The agency handles 55,000 flights per day, in 2008 served 750 million passengers and has about 50,000 operational facilities that have to maintain connectivity to support air safety.

The FAA’s focus now is on establishing the Next Generation Air Transportation System, intended to transform the agency's reliance on ground-based systems to more airborne platforms – including technologies such as Global Positioning System satellites – and incorporate a network-centric approach for better situational awareness

The aim is to reduce air traffic delays, reduce the consumption of fuel and ensure air safety.

The FAA will spend $860 million to $870 million on NextGen this fiscal year and is budgeted for $1 billion for fiscal 2011, Washington said.

Such a complex transformation effort requires that FAA stays focused. FAA now approves investments by portfolio, with program managers required to acknowledge their interdependencies and tradeoffs related to resources.

"So having an EA that is enlightened and focused on linkages, we have greater insight into that connectivity,” Washington said. “We know what programs are dependent on others and can see the impact of program reduction or delays can have on achieving the overall improvement of systems. So this allows us to better assess tradeoffs of investment decisions," he said.

Additionally, through EA analysis, FAA realized that the agency had 13 to 14 weather forecasting programs that were independent of each other. FAA made a decision to consolidate those programs for better focus and continuity, Washington said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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