Fate of FAA system up in the air

Congress, the aviation industry and transportation officials will withhold

decisions about the fate of the Federal Aviation Administration's overbudget,

behind-schedule satellite navigation system until two reports on the system

are completed in December.

Members of Congress last week questioned FAA's management of the Wide

Area Augmentation System — a network of ground stations that verify and

correct the signal from Global Positioning System satellites and relay it

to aircraft receivers.

"I used to worry that this program would become a billion-dollar boondoggle.

Now, it looks like WAAS is well on its way to becoming a $4 billion boondoggle,"

said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), in his opening statement at a June 29 hearing

of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee.

Subcommittee members said they were worried about an FAA pattern of

schedule delays, increased costs on technology programs and contractor Raytheon

Co.'s ability to deliver a system that meets FAA's requirements.

FAA originally had planned to complete WAAS in 1998 at a cost of $600

million. Software problems and Raytheon's inability to prove the system's

integrity — its ability to warn pilots of incorrect positioning data — have

set the program back several more years, raised the cost to an estimated

$3.7 billion and called into question whether WAAS can enable pilots to

land precision approaches. During a precision approach, WAAS would guide

the aircraft using GPS data down to 200 feet above the runway and within

a half-mile of visibility.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) asked FAA to get tough on its contractor

to force it to meet the system's stringent requirements. To do a landing

from that distance, the system must guarantee accuracy within 10 meters.

It also cannot fail to warn pilots of incorrect data more than once in 10

million instances.

However, criticizing FAA and its contractor for not meeting milestones

on a new technology that has significant unknowns is not the answer, said

Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) "Ultimately, we need the best system. I don't

condone cost overruns, but we should cope with them and deal with them and

try to make them work out," Bass said.

FAA has attempted to work out the problems by assembling a panel of

university, agency and industry experts earlier this year to address the

problems Raytheon was having proving the system's ability to warn pilots

of incorrect GPS data. The panel plans to provide recommendations on the

ability of WAAS to provide a less stringent capability — 350 feet and one-mile

visibility — in late July and an analysis of the more precise approach in


An independent review board from the Institute for Defense Analysis

will study the panel's results to make recommendations to FAA about the

ultimate scope of WAAS' capabilities. The Aviation Subcommittee plans to

hold a hearing in January to discuss the findings, which could lead to a

decision ranging from canceling the program to modifying the level of precision

landing it will provide, Duncan said.

"I think it's premature to reach final judgment on this system," said

Kenneth Mead, Transportation Department inspector general, during testimony

June 29. Although he is optimistic FAA will be able to help Raytheon meet

the exacting requirement, Mead said he will not allow the $4 million a month

FAA is spending on WAAS go unjustified.

"We're recommending a cost-incurred audit of where that money is going

and what we're getting for it as well a series of unannounced" inspections

of the development facility, Mead said.


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