GAO casts doubt on FAA satellite program

It is unclear whether the benefits make up for the cost of a new space-

and ground-based navigation system being developed by the Federal Aviation

Administration, according to a General Accounting Office review of the FAA's

Wide Area Augmentation System released Tuesday.

WAAS will be a network of reference stations and communications satellites.

It will verify and correct the signal received from the Defense Department's

Global Positioning System satellites before sending the navigation information

to pilots.

Initial capability was planned for September 2000 but software problems

and the agency's failure to prove that WAAS would not fail to warn pilots

of misleading

information more than once in 10 million approaches caused further delays,

cost growth and a scaling back of the early capabilities of the system.

The ability of WAAS to warn pilots of incorrect data is called the integrity

of the system.

The FAA now plans to provide limited precision guidance capability with

WAAS by 2002 and an independent team is evaluating any changes that will

be needed to provide a more enhanced system in the future.

GAO estimates the FAA may need three or more years to demonstrate the requirement

that WAAS will virtually never fail to warn pilots of an erroneous GPS signal.

That could cost an additional $200 to $240 million.

"The difficulties in proving the integrity requirement have occurred

largely because FAA management and the integrated product team underestimated

the complexity of resolving the integrity issue and, as a result, failed

to recognize the seriousness of the problem," according to the GAO report,

"National Airspace System: Persistent Problems in FAA's New Navigation System

Highlight Need for Periodic Evaluation." GAO did the review for Sen. Richard

Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on

Transportation.

"Software development - the most critical component of key FAA modernization

programs - has been the Achilles' heel of FAA's efforts to deliver programs

on time and within budget," the report said.

The FAA did not closely monitor the contractor's effort to demonstrate

integrity, and members of the team did not have a clear understanding of

their roles, the GAO report said. GAO pointed out that lack of monitoring

and poor communications have been recurring problems in FAA's air traffic

control modernization program.

GAO said the FAA took an acknowledged high risk approach: It agreed on a

design for the system and established milestones for system deployment before

completing the research and development needed to demonstrate the system's

capability. If the FAA continues along this path, GAO said, it could incur

significant costs for other system components, such as satellites, to make

the design fully operational - without knowing whether the system will meet

its performance requirements.

GAO is pleased with the FAA's new approach, which allows time for collecting

and evaluating data on system performance, the extent to which users have

purchased equipment and the availability of emerging new technologies for

the new navigation system. However, GAO recommended the FAA devise a specific

plan for reevaluating WAAS at critical points in development and having

the progress of the system independently validated at the checkpoints before

Congress approves additional funding.

In response to the report, the FAA told GAO that users would receive major

benefits from any level of precision approach into airports and airports

would not necessarily need to invest in upgrades of their facilities to

take advantage of the approaches. The FAA also stressed some cost growth

was due to other factors, such as changes in the way Department of Transportation

calculates project costs.

GAO recommendations:

* Develop a comprehensive plan that would provide the framework for

the agency's future investments in its new navigation system. This plan

should establish future checkpoints at which the FAA would determine whether

the contractor's approach for meeting performance requirements conforms

to the agency's guidelines, if users' needs have changed and whether other

technologies have matured and could meet users' needs and the agency's requirements.

* Have an external organization evaluate the agency's progress at these

checkpoints and include the results of this evaluation in the agency's request

for future funding of the navigation system.

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