FAA looks abroad for oceanic ATC solution

Frustrated in developing a system for controllers to use to separate air traffic over the ocean, the Federal Aviation Administration may scrap its plans in favor of using a system developed for one of its foreign counterparts.

The oceanic modernization program is supposed to improve pilot/controller communication and automation so that planes can fly closer to one another while over the ocean. This would open up more airspace for aircraft and ultimately save on fuel costs.

Currently, oceanic air traffic controllers cannot directly communicate with pilots, and controllers spend 70 percent of their time manually processing the positions of aircraft. The current system runs on a mainframe that uses obsolete software language.

The FAA's plans to modernize the antiquated air traffic system that controls the airspace over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Caribbean Sea started in earnest in 1995, when the agency awarded a contract to Hughes Aircraft Co., which is now part of Raytheon Co. However, the agency issued Raytheon a stop-work order in May due to lack of progress on the program and undertook a 90-day study to assess options in other countries.

"The fact that we've been slow has given us an opportunity that will provide a platform for us to use so that we don't have to custom develop [one]," said Nancy Graham, acting integrated product team leader for oceanic and offshore programs at the FAA. "The international air traffic control market has moved significantly since we awarded the [Hughes] contract in 1995. My desire is to capitalize on that."

Graham added that the FAA is considering a service acquisition approach in which the agency would lease air traffic services and technology from a vendor to reduce risk and speed up the pace of the program, which is not funded this fiscal year. The FAA will decide next month on what acquisition approach it will take.

According to observers, controllers and FAA officials were impressed with the Australian and Canadian oceanic systems. "I make it no secret that I was impressed with the Australian system," said Kevin Chamness, the national oceanic representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association who tested The Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS). "Unfortunately, I haven't seen a system yet that was designed by a U.S. vendor to do oceanic air traffic control that is ready to go."

TAAATS was completed in May and was developed by Airsys ATM, a company 60 percent owned by Thomson CSF Airsys and 40 percent owned by Siemens AG. Nav Canada owns Canada's domestic system— the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System— which was developed by Raytheon, and its oceanic system— the Gander Automated Air Traffic System— which was developed by Prior Data Sciences and Transport Canada.

Nav Canada has expressed interest in competing on any potential FAA oceanic procurement, sources said.

Under the current contract, Hughes/Raytheon will complete development of the controller/pilot data link capability at the Oakland, Calif., and New York oceanic air traffic control centers. The link will provide near real-time communication between the controller and the aircraft. Any new contract would cover five additional capabilities, including Automatic Dependence Surveillance, which is a "pseudo-radar" that travels from the plane to the surface to give the aircraft's location. Radar tracking is not available over the ocean.

Any approach, such as leasing, that will bring modernization to the oceanic airspace quickly would be welcome, said Ray Hilton, director of air traffic management at the Air Transport Association. "Oceanic automation is a long time coming," Hilton said.

However, George Donohue, FAA visiting professor for air transportation technology and policy at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., said the FAA could encounter some of the same problems it had with other programs, such as the $1 billion Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System. The FAA has delayed installing that system because of what air traffic controllers and technicians claimed are STARS' hazardous design flaws, such as menus that block the view of aircraft icons on the screen and keyboards that require controllers to look away from their screens.

"STARS was already operational in Norway and Germany, but it's tied up by acceptance by our union," Donohue said. "Just having a system that does the job is not sufficient for it to work in the United States."

Joe Fields, director of business development at Computer Sciences Corp., said his company would be interested in bidding on any future oceanic contract. CSC bid on the contract now held by Hughes/Raytheon.

Jane Rudolph, vice president for domestic programs, air traffic management, at Lockheed Martin, said the company also would be interested in pursuing any potential oceanic contract.

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