FAA systems overhaul hoped to allow `free flight'

The Federal Aviation Administration expects to launch a large systems integration procurement this fall to overhaul the agency's air traffic management system and move the aviation industry toward a revolutionary method of air traffic control (ATC).

The Air Traffic Management System Development and Integration (ATMSDI) program is expected to be worth a minimum of $250 million, but likely far more, over the seven-year contract, industry sources said.

By overhauling the ATM infrastructure and deploying advanced traffic-flow management tools, the FAA hopes to build a seamless management environment in which airlines can have great flexibility in selecting the most efficient paths for a given flight—what is known as free flight.

"The [ATM] infrastructure is so important because that's the platform that will allow us to do collaborative decision making that is the stepping stone to free flight," said John Scardina, director of the FAA's ATM integrated product team (IPT).

The team will release its program strategy next month in anticipation of a full solicitation in the first quarter of fiscal 1997. The FAA expects to make an award by the end of that year, Scardina said.

Earlier this year the FAA committed to phasing in free flight over the next decade but did not say exactly how it would proceed.

Free flight is expected to save the airline industry billions of dollars a year by letting aircraft fly more direct routes and by safely accommodating an increase in traffic volume.

The ATMSDI contractor will provide mission support for the ATM IPT, which is largely responsible for managing the change, Scardina said. ATMSDI will be a task-order contract, with the FAA deciding on specific projects as the agency's free-flight strategy evolves.

The FAA currently divides the national airspace system into three basic domains—terminal, tower and en route. Air traffic controllers focus on traffic within a particular domain but do not receive much advanced information about the traffic flow into and out of that domain.

In contrast, traffic-flow management regulates the flow of traffic nationally across all three domains.

To make free flight a reality, the FAA needs to give air traffic controllers more traffic flow management capabilities. Controllers need systems that show far in advance what traffic will be entering their airspace so they can begin planning. As traffic volumes increase, controllers also may need tools to assist with the planning itself.

Traffic-flow management systems are maintained at major terminal and en route ATC centers and at FAA regional offices.

As part of ATMSDI, the FAA plans to upgrade the hardware and software infrastructure throughout the traffic-flow management system, providing more powerful systems and additional functionality.

The FAA also wants to move the hub from Boston to Herndon, Va.

In the current system, traffic flow is managed at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, which works with traffic data collected at the ATM hub at the Volpe Transportation Center, outside Boston.

The FAA, often working with NASA, has been developing a number of ATM and domain-specific tools over the last several years. These include the Surface Movement Advisor and the Center Tracon Automation System.

Eventually, the new tools and enhanced infrastructure will give air traffic controllers the end-to-end view of the nation's airspace, at which point free flight becomes possible.

Given the potential scope of work and complexity of the ATM environment, ATMSDI will draw on a select group of systems integrators with experience in air traffic systems, according to industry sources.

"It's a true systems integration job," one vendor said. Software development and integration will make up a large part of the program, but it also requires training, maintenance and life-cycle support.

Three integrators have confirmed they will bid as primes: Computer Sciences Corp., Hughes Aircraft Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. BDM Air Safety Management and Science Applications International Corp. also may bid on the program.

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