FAA's Donohue defends WAAS schedule, budget at hearing

Federal Aviation Administration and Hughes Aircraft Co. officials last week assured a House panel that the Wide-Area Augmentation System (WAAS) the agency's major satellite-based navigation program is on schedule and on budget despite recent reports to the contrary.

At a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Aviation George Donohue associate administrator for research and acquisitions at the FAA testified that during the last 15 months WAAS contractor Hughes "has successfully met each milestone and design review and the contract has remained on schedule and slightly under budget."

WAAS will use a network of ground stations to refine Global Positioning System (GPS) signals so that they are reliable enough to use for navigation. The program has come under fire from Congress and the General Accounting Office for cost overruns and program delays. GAO recently reported that WAAS will cost nearly $1 billion to complete and it is about one year behind schedule [FCW Aug. 18].

The reports raised congressional eyebrows particularly because WAAS has run into trouble before: the FAA originally awarded the contract to Wilcox Electric in 1995 but canceled it eight months later because it was over budget and behind schedule. In October of last year the FAA finalized a contract with Hughes the current WAAS contractor.

Rep. John Duncan chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Aviation said last week that Congress and the FAA have to make sure that WAAS does not become a "$1 billion boondoggle."

The FAA maintained at the hearing that this will not be the case and that the program is on track. In fact the $1 billion price for WAAS is at the high end of what the FAA thought the program would originally cost Donohue said. In 1995 when the contract was still held by Wilcox the FAA gave a range of $500 million to $950 million as the cost for WAAS. When the contract was awarded to Hughes the FAA estimated that it would cost $950 million to $1 billion Donohue said.

Part of the problem is that the FAA did not share its figures with Congress leading lawmakers to believe that these costs were unexpected said Gerald Dillingham associate director of transportation issues at GAO's Resources Community and Economic Development Division.

In addition the FAA did not estimate its costs for the program consistently said Kenneth Mead the Transportation Department inspector general. For example until recently WAAS documentation generally excluded operation and maintenance costs although the FAA's new Acquisition Management System requires managers to identify all costs to acquire operate and maintain new systems throughout their useful life.

John Weaver president and chief operating officer of Hughes said the company will deliver the program on cost and on schedule "with no technical obstacles in sight."

Within the next two months a Navy research plane will fly with a prototype WAAS receiver on board - an important step in determining final airborne receiver requirements. The next major milestone will occur in December when Hughes the FAA and outside consultants will conduct a critical design review.

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