FAA oceanic tracker ready for takeoff

The Federal Aviation Administration has revitalized its plan to automate the way aircraft are tracked and routed as they cross the ocean.

After years of reconsideration and setbacks in congressional funding and approval for modernizing the oceanic air traffic control system, the FAA plans to begin the procurement process in mid-January for the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) system.

In 1996, the FAA scrapped plans to build what it called the Advanced Oceanic Automation System after prime contractor Hughes Aircraft Co. submitted cost estimates that were higher than expected.

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

The ATOP procurement will transform the paper-strip tracking method to a computerized graphic display that a controller only would update if there is a discrepancy between where a plane is supposed to be at a particular time and where it actually is. The automated system will free time for controllers to process rerouting requests, plan ahead and explore options to make more efficient use of the airspace.

If a controller can predict just a five-minute reduction in flight time before a flight takes off, an airline could save about $7,000, said Ron Morgan, the FAA's director of air traffic service. By comparison, a five- minute reduction saved while the flight is in the air saves $173 in fuel.

Rather than developing an entirely new system, the agency intends to purchase a copy of one of at least five existing oceanic air traffic control systems already operating around the world.

In 1998, an FAA team started a global market survey of oceanic air traffic systems, said Kevin Chamness, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's liaison to the FAA's Oceanic and Offshore Integrated Product Team.

One of the first sites controllers tested was the Australian Advanced Air Traffic System. Although the team was impressed with the system, it has since found other systems that also provide the capabilities the FAA wants, he said.

Five potential prime contractors—Raytheon Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., ARINC Inc., Diversified International Sciences Corp. and Nav Canada—were present at an FAA industry day for the procurement held Dec. 15 at Mitre Corp., McLean, Va. Those companies operate oceanic air traffic control systems somewhere in the world, Chamness said.

In its fiscal 2000 budget request to Congress, the FAA submitted plans to lease an existing service, but a congressional committee approved $27 million to get the procurement started under the condition that the FAA acquire the system using traditional acquisition methods. The committee report said a lease would burden the FAA's already strained operating budget.

Because the committee nixed FAA's plans to lease a service, the FAA rewrote the procurement requirements.

Criticisms of the plan also are holding up the procurement, Chamness said.

"The team is getting second-guessed at every corner, every turn, by people who are seeking to influence what FAA gets," Chamness said.

The oceanic airspace is a high-profile, high-revenue international operation, which affects a lot of businesses and organizations. Other international air traffic control providers that operate more as a business than the FAA does are interested in having oceanic airspace as a revenue source, he said.

The FAA plans to distribute a screening information request by mid-January, and it will begin evaluating systems at one of its facilities in late March. The agency will reduce the competition to two or three vendors and conduct operational tests until it awards a contract by late 2000 or early 2001.


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