WAAS cost overruns threaten program

The Federal Aviation Administration may pay almost $1 billion to develop its major satellite-based navigation program some $350 million more than it anticipated when it launched the program three years ago according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.

In late 1994 the FAA estimated it would cost just more than $600 million to build the Wide-Area Augmentation System which will use a network of ground stations to refine Global Positioning System (GPS) signals so they are reliable enough to use for en route travel and precision approaches to airports.

However according to GAO the full cost of WAAS - which has already gone through a change of contractors - may now reach $950 million with some funds showing up in the FAA budget under separate line items.

The FAA attributes a significant portion of the increased costs to unanticipated development costs the report said.

The agency declined to comment specifically on the GAO report but an agency spokesman said "There was a range of costs when the project got under way. The range has gotten smaller but the high and low ends [of the cost range] have moved up as we were asked to do different things like accelerate the program from 12 to eight years."

"It's a big deal " said Jack Ryan vice president of air traffic management at the Air Transport Association. "WAAS may have out-priced its value to the flying public." In addition money that could have been spent on other programs will now have to be reprogrammed for WAAS he said.

Ryan said ATA recommended that the FAA only proceed with Phase One - re-evaluate the program - and decide whether to continue with phases Two and Three at that time. It is not clear that the money needed for phases Two and Three will be worth the value WAAS will offer he said.

"The FAA will eventually end up canceling the program " said Al Blackburn a former FAA associate administrator and the author of a recent report calling for the commercialization of GPS and a halt in the development of WAAS which was issued by the Reason Public Policy Institute. "They should it's a waste of time and money."

The recent decision by the Defense Department which builds and manages the GPS system to add a second civil frequency to the next round of GPS satellites will provide improved accuracy that aircraft need for most phases of flight except precision landings he said.

"For precison landings the FAA could use [the Local-Area Augmentation System] which will cost a lot less than WAAS " Blackburn said.

Ron Haley president of Differential Corrections Inc. a private firm that broadcasts corrections to the GPS signal nationwide said his company could provide the same capability as WAAS "cheaper and faster." Haley believes the FAA might never field WAAS and if it does the schedule will continue to slip. "When was the last time the FAA delivered anything on time?" he said. "There is no guarantee that WAAS will ever be delivered."

WAAS - positioned as an important tool for helping the FAA handle air traffic congestion by letting aircraft travel safely at a closer distance - is scheduled to be delivered in three phases with reliance on satellite navigation increasing with each phase (see chart Page 3).

The FAA spokesman said the agency expects to have Phase One of WAAS completed in early 1999 and it plans to move ahead with phases Two and Three. Full implementation of WAAS is scheduled to be completed in 2001.WAAS contractor Hughes Aircraft declined to comment on the GAO report.

This is not the first time WAAS has been in trouble. The FAA originally awarded the WAAS contract to Wilcox Electric in August 1995 for $475 million but canceled that eight months later and entered into an interim contract with Hughes in May 1996. The $483 million contract with Hughes was finalized in October last year.

The FAA said it canceled the contract with Wilcox because it was worried about probable cost overruns of at least $100 million schedule delays and inadequate staffing among other issues.

Sources said WAAS has attracted the attention of Congress and a hearing to review the program has been scheduled for October.

"We're concerned about cost overruns and delays in the program. We want to find out what more is happening " said a source on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Aviation.

"Most of the [$450 million] is unanticipated development costs " said a source on the Senate Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation's Subcommittee on Aviation. "It's difficult to anticipate everything but [that figure] is significant." The report is significant the source said because now the information is public and the program can be routinely monitored.

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