Money woes return FAA to square one

Fiscal pressures have forced the Federal Aviation Administration to scrap the more ambitious elements of its plans to modernize air traffic control in ocean airspace. The agency will look for more cost-effective solutions in the global market.

Less than a year ago the FAA awarded Hughes Aircraft Co. a $141 million contract for Oceanic Systems Development and Support (OSDS) which was intended to update and eventually replace the existing mainframe-based Oceanic Display and Planning System (ODAPS).

However based upon program cost estimates provided by Hughes the FAA has canceled plans to build what it called the Advanced Oceanic Automation System (AOAS) which was expected to increase both capacity and safety in oceanic airspace by providing controllers with the latest air traffic control technology.

Instead the agency plans to retain Hughes as a contractor but search for existing technology that might be adapted to meet program requirements said Joe Fee leader of the oceanic and offshore integrated product team.

"What we basically have [created] willy-nilly is a program designed-to-cost " Fee said. The FAA still wants to provide the capabilities the controllers and aviation industry are expecting but Fee said "We have to face the economic reality first then see what we can do."

Hughes declined to comment on details of OSDS because of its present negotiations with the FAA a company spokeswoman said.

"There is an FAA budget shortfall that is related to the total set of [OSDS] requirements and we are exploring [off-the-shelf] items and solutions to the maximum extent possible " the spokeswoman said. "We will be working with them to try and work out a solution that will best serve the customer and Hughes."

Hughes originally developed the existing system ODAPS under a contract awarded in 1984. However by the time ODAPS was going into the field the mainframe-based technology already was lagging behind the capabilities available on newer Unix-based platforms.

In the first phase of OSDS Hughes was expected to provide a temporary fix by adding two important capabilities to ODAPS: oceanic data link (ODL) for nonvoice communications with aircraft and Automated Dependence Surveillance (ADS) for automatically tracking aircraft on controller displays. ADS is necessary because radar-tracking is not available over the ocean.

Phase Two - the heart of the program - called for Hughes to develop a more fully integrated controller system with a more modern Unix-based platform and an advanced flight data processor. In addition to ODL and ADS the new platform AOAS would include an advanced conflict probe which predicts unacceptably small separation of aircraft and electronic flight strips on which controllers track flight progress.

The FAA and Hughes are still on track to complete phase one some time between 1997 and 1998 but the project will exceed the FAA's OSDS budget Fee said. When the FAA looked at cost and requirements of phase two beginning around 1998 "it was more than we were going to have " Fee said.

Between now and January the FAA will survey the defense and aviation industry for an existing platform Hughes might use in the next phase of OSDS. At a minimum the platform must support ODL and ADS but the FAA would like to incorporate as many advanced capabilities as possible without building a new system from scratch Fee said.

"My gut feeling is we could come up with something that would have the automation capability of ODAPS but that integrates data link and ADS " Fee said.

Both the airline industry and the controllers are concerned that OSDS will fall short of meeting their requirements.

"If they can redirect the program and modernize the oceanic system and do it economically and still give us the functionality we need that's reasonable " said Ray Hilton vice president of air traffic management at the Air Transportation Association of America.

"But when you start cutting funding you start cutting functionality and increasing the [delivery] schedule " and it ends up costing as much money as the FAA might hope to conserve Hilton said.

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