FAA puts maintenance system in holding pattern

Lack of funding and unclear requirements have forced the Federal Aviation Administration to stop full-scale development on a contract potentially worth $100 million for a computer system to track the maintenance of the nation's air traffic control system.

The FAA recently informed contractor Raytheon Corp. to stop work on the National Airspace System (NAS) Infrastructure Management System (NIMS) contract because of reduced funding levels, said Jim Hevelone, deputy director of the FAA's Air Traffic Systems Requirement Service. The FAA now must prioritize what capabilities it should roll out and when.

"The original requirements for NIMS are still valid, [but] we won't be able to develop capabilities as quickly as anticipated because we" do not have the money, Hevelone said. "We've had to prioritize. What will give us the most bang for the buck?"

NIMS is key to keeping the FAA's aging air traffic control equipment, which recently has experienced many failures, up and running. The system was designed to replace a mix of legacy systems and subsystems and to offer a significant improvement over today's systems. NIMS would act as a huge database to help the FAA monitor, control, repair and maintain radar, navigation aides, communication facilities and other widely distributed mission-critical components that make up the nation's airspace system. NIMS would help track available technicians, spare parts and costs, and it would monitor how often a piece of equipment or a system does not work.

The FAA awarded NIMS, a delivery-order contract, to Hughes Information Technology Systems, later acquired by Raytheon, in April 1997. To date, Raytheon has received about $27 million from the FAA for NIMS work, including work under four delivery orders, said John Trail, senior FAA automation programs manager at Raytheon. This work includes system engineering, developing translation software to interface with older equipment, maintaining legacy systems and testing for Year 2000 problems. Some NIMS functionality was delivered under the fourth delivery order, but the order has since been canceled.

"We are going to take 1999 and 2000 to reassess what we want the system to do for us," said Shelly Myers, the director of the Office of Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems at the FAA. "We didn't want to build a system that didn't exactly fit what we needed. In 2001, our plan is to go back into full-scale development."

A decision on whether to contract with Raytheon for full-scale development or go out with another solicitation has not yet been decided, Myers said. The FAA still considers NIMS a critical system, she added.

Steve Zaidman, associate administrator for research and acquisitions at the FAA, said it is time for the agency to call a timeout and refocus. "We've descoped the contract and are looking at altering the concept based on the technology that's already out there," he said.

Late last year Raytheon submitted a scaled-down plan for a "fieldable" system that would cost less, but the FAA was not interested. Trail said Raytheon has proven that it can do the work, as evidenced by the NIMS central operations control facility in Herndon, Va., for which Raytheon developed the initial functionality. Raytheon is in "clean-up" mode, which includes giving the FAA the documentation to continue the work itself.

NIMS is still a critical piece of FAA modernization, Trail said. "The FAA has aging infrastructure and many different types of systems that just don't plug into modern commercial equipment," he said. "As time goes on, the FAA will lose people that are capable of supporting those [systems] and will need to allocate what people they have as cost-effectively as they can. One of the ways of doing that is NIMS."

The FAA should not neglect the development of NIMS, said George Donohue, an FAA visiting professor for air transportation technology and policy at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. "NIMS is an extremely important system to the maintenance of the infrastructure of the NAS," he said. "It's very unfortunate that it's not being pursued [by the FAA] with vigor."

The Professional Airways Systems Specialists, a union representing airway facilities technical employees, said it was unaware of any plans to stop work on NIMS.

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