FAA, industry team on LAAS

In an effort to reduce development costs and risks, the Federal Aviation Administration will work closely with industry to develop the specifications of a new satellite-based program that will help planes make precision landings at airports under inclement weather conditions.

The Local-Area Augmentation System (LAAS) navigation program, which consists of ground stations installed at 143 airports and avionics systems installed on planes, will provide positioning information accurate enough for pilots to land aircraft despite very low visibility.

The FAA plans to roll out LAAS in three stages, but it will not be until the last stage, set to start in 2003, that the FAA will fund an acquisition to purchase the 143 systems.

In the meantime, the FAA will work with vendors, most likely three or four teams, to develop the specifications and documentation for LAAS. In the second stage, the FAA will provide some funding to vendors for LAAS development, but it did not reveal how much.

The staged approach will help the agency avoid the fate of many large government programs that end up taking years longer and millions of dollars more to complete, such as the much-criticized Wide-Area Augmentation System (WAAS), the FAA said. WAAS is a separate satellite-based program that helps pilots navigate in the en route space.

"We want to leverage industry know-how to the maximum extent possible," said Ray Swider, LAAS project manager at the FAA. "The cost sharing helps us because we don't have to have a large budget. Also, there is some risk-sharing because we don't engage in a single schedule with a single vendor. And the competition will reduce our costs."

The FAA will issue an agreement in about three weeks that will lay out first-stage requirements and the government/industry partnership structure.

"This is different than the WAAS [program]," said Stephen Schafer, vice president of Aviation, Navigation and Satellite Programs LLC, an aviation vendor. The FAA wants to field LAAS for little or no money up front and "it will happen a lot faster" than WAAS.

The agency would not reveal how much it ultimately plans to spend on LAAS, but Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said in October that the FAA expects to spend $23 million through 2001 on a LAAS prototype.

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