IG slams FAA data link costs, sked

Another key component of the Federal Aviation Administration's program to modernize air traffic control is off track, according to a Transportation Department inspector general's report released late last month.

The inspector general projects that Controller/Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), an advanced data communications program designed to allow air traffic controllers to handle more traffic, will cost more than $1 billion and take more than a decade to complete. CPDLC will make it possible for pilots and controllers to transmit data directly between computers on the ground and computers in the cockpit, rather than controllers and pilots speaking to each other by radio. It will free up more voice channels for urgent traffic by replacing many routine voice transmissions with text messages. CPDLC is designed to increase the number of aircraft that controllers can communicate with and manage at any given time.

However, the costs and benefits of implementing CPDLC are still uncertain, according to a recent DOT inspector general audit report. Through 2015, the program is now projected to cost $645 million more than the $420 million that the FAA already has spent on the program. Costs include installation of CPDLC only at en route facilities and do not take into account future enhancements. The FAA will have to make a strong business case for CPDLC to convince airlines to invest in new avionics to support the capability, the report said.

In addition, CPDLC faces significant risks and challenges, according to the inspector general. The FAA's plans to roll out CPDLC nationwide starting in 2003 are "ambitious given the scope and complexity of the effort," the report stated. Considerable development, overall integration work and testing still need to be completed.

Human-factors issues must be given a high priority and enough funding to ensure that controller and pilot concerns are addressed, according to the report. Pilots and controllers will need to become accustomed to using two distinct communications systems: voice and data link.

FAA program management also needs improvement, according to the report. For example, various groups responsible for developing and installing CPDLC have not properly coordinated their efforts. The FAA already has spent more than $100 million on data link hardware and software that never will be used for its intended purpose, the inspector general said.

The FAA generally agrees with the inspector general's analysis and acknowledges that management changes are needed.

The agency already has taken steps to address the inspector general's concerns, an FAA spokeswoman said, including hiring a new associate administrator for research and acquisitions; a director of communications, navigation and surveillance systems; and a new data link product lead. "We have a new management team with a focus on industry consensus and objectives and schedules," the spokeswoman said.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has given a "cautious endorsement" of data link, said Martin Cole, NATCA's national representative for data link.

"The controllers are looking for data link. The caveat is that it is correctly implemented where human-factors issues are addressed and [controllers] have technology they can work with," Cole said. "On the one hand, the FAA spent a lot of money without a lot to show for it, but we do seem to be heading down the right path for implementation."

This month, RTCA, an FAA advisory group, proposed the formation of a special committee to work on data link implementation. A subgroup of that committee, to be led by NATCA and the Airline Pilots Association, would focus specifically on human-factors issues for data link.

A major challenge for the FAA will be integrating the new technology with the current infrastructure, said Michael Kujawa, senior analyst at Allied Business Intelligence Inc., a consulting firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

"There will be new user interfaces in the plane and tower. There will be interim systems.... No one knows what the final system will look like," he said. "God created the universe in seven days because there was no infrastructure."

The inspector general's report was requested last summer by House Science Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and ranking member Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.).

Sensenbrenner said in a press statement that it is "disheartening that another FAA modernization effort is grossly behind schedule and over budget."

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DATA LINK BENEFITS

* Reduces delays for departing planes by sending routine clearances via text messages.* Opens more voice channels for urgent traffic.* Allows controller workload to be distributed more evenly among controller team.* Decreases garbled communications associated with voice messages.

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