FAA on PR swing

Air traffic controllers do not use grease pencils and tape to track aircraft

anymore, as some may still believe.

In an effort to highlight its progress in modernizing its systems, key

Federal Aviation Administration officials and air traffic controllers held

a briefing July 18 at the Wash-ington Air Route Traffic Control Center in

Leesburg, Va., where the FAA this month dedicated a new set of workstations

for air traffic controllers to use to manage aircraft en route between airports.

The installation of Display System Replacement (DSR) workstations marked

the end of a five-year project to replace the systems in air route centers

across the country. Last September, the FAA finished replacing the decades-old

host computer systems that process air traffic data displayed on controller

workstations.

"We've really completed the modernization stage for the en route air

traffic control system," said Steve Zaidman, FAA associate administrator

for research and acquisitions.

Despite the milestone, however, the FAA is still having trouble recovering

from the 1994 failure of its Advanced Automation System program, which ended

up costing the agency about $1.5 billion. The FAA launched AAS in 1988,

awarding a contract to IBM Corp. to modernize the systems throughout all

air traffic control centers. But six years later, as schedules continued

to slip and costs continued to rise, the FAA broke up AAS into smaller projects.

FAA officials insisted last week that things have changed as they showed

off the goods at the Leesburg center, which features a new host computer

system and the high-tech, color DSR.

The $1 billion program to modernize en route air traffic control centers

has improved the controls, communications switches, and audio and visual

warnings. No piece of operational equipment at the Leesburg center is older

than 1997. That same model of incremental improvement will be copied in

the terminal-area centers, Zaidman said.

The controllers used the new equipment with ease, even though it became

operational only a week earlier, said Chuck Reavis, manager of the Leesburg

center.

"One of the biggest things that's changing for automation is the work

force," Reavis said. "The bulk of our work force now has grown up in the

computer generation. They are willing to try new things."

Information technology experience is providing benefits within FAA as

well. Controllers have played an integral part in ironing out the bugs in

new automation systems — such as DSR and the Standard Terminal Automation

Replacement System — which were discovered to have serious human interface

issues.

They are also being brought in early to help design new information

technology. A combination of IT and better communication between controllers

and pilots is being used to create Free Flight, which will enable controllers

and pilots to find routes that will save time and fuel, said John Thornton,

FAA's director of Free Flight Phase 2.

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