FAA kicks off ATC upgrade

With its key computer systems wearing out, the Federal Aviation Administration last week launched an overhaul of a key segment of the air traffic control system.

Eunomia (pronounced you-NO-me-uh), estimated to be worth $450 million, will replace and upgrade the aging systems in the en route centers, which take over air traffic control after aircraft leave an airport's airspace, typically about a 50-mile radius around the airport. The program, named after the mythical Greek goddess known as the "warden of the sky," will play a vital role in ensuring that aircraft maintain a safe distance from each other as they fly across the country and over oceans.

The FAA already has a program under way to refurbish the existing en route computer systems' radar displays. The Display System Replacement (DSR) contract, awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. in 1995, originally was part of the decade-old, multibillion-dollar modernization program called the Advanced Automation System. But AAS, which also was intended to update technology in airport towers and terminal radar control facilities, was later scaled back and broken up into individual projects.

However, even as work under DSR continues, the FAA is beginning a new project to replace the existing equipment, before the systems begin to fail.

Without the upgrades, many of the en route systems will fail, forcing controllers to increase the distance between planes to prevent accidents, which in turn would limit the number of planes allowed in the air at a time. This would increase the number of flight delays and ultimately constrain the airlines' revenue stream.

"Obsolescence, end-of-life issues, proprietary systems— all of these are driving us right now fairly urgently," said John McKenna, the FAA's en route integrated product team lead. "We want to [upgrade] in sufficient time so we...aren't faced with an emergency situation like with the host-computer replacement."

The FAA is faced with a lack of spare parts for its aging host computers. In addition, without an upgrade to the processors' microcode— low-level machine instructions— the systems probably will malfunction after Dec. 31, 1999. The en route systems should be based on an open, scalable architecture that requires the minimum number of custom-developed components, McKenna said.

The FAA expects to make a contract award in mid-2000 for Eunomia.

The FAA last week told industry representatives that it is not looking for a traditional machine to replace the en route system but rather solutions that have not yet been identified. The FAA is undertaking an investment and market analysis to see what industry can offer. "We are looking for solutions that may be broader and that may impact other systems as well," McKenna said.

Sue Corcoran, director of en route programs at Lockheed Martin, said there are pros and cons to the FAA's approach. "I believe that what [the FAA] is trying to do is build a consensus and be open to ideas," she said. "As a first step, this is an appropriate approach, but I hope shortly they get down to zeroing in on what they really [want]." The company is interested in bidding on the program, Corcoran said.

GTE Government Systems Corp. sees an opportunity as well, said Ray Bevacqua, senior director of business development at GTE's Information Systems Division. "We are in the aviation weather [dissemination] and data dissemination [businesses] and communications business, and we are interested in providing those capabilities under Eunomia," he said. "We see ourselves as a player."

Eunomia is essential if the FAA is to introduce new air traffic control services such as the concept of free flight, which is a network of air and ground communication systems, on-board computers and global positioning satellite navigational aids that pilots will use to choose the best route, speed and altitude based on current flying conditions. Now pilots almost exclusively rely on controllers, who use a centralized command and control system to set pilots' routes.

En route and oceanic domain systems today do not provide the information that air traffic controllers need to ensure that free flight will increase safety, according to the FAA. In addition, enhancements would help protect against unauthorized access to automation systems and minimize the time that fully operational automation services are unavailable.

So far, the Eunomia plan addresses many air traffic controllers' concerns, said Ruth Marlin, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's liaison to the FAA's ARU-100 group, which is responsible for the en route and oceanic domains.

"The system is now aging, and a portion of it is unsustainable," Marlin said. "Eunomia addresses that and brings new technology on board that is sustainable for a long period of time. When we have failures, it takes longer to come back online because of the age [of the equipment]. New technology will help with that."

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