GAO urges better oversight for air traffic system

Federal Aviation Administration officials need more oversight of operational systems for the air traffic control system and should do a better job of implementing process improvement methods for information technology projects, congressional auditors said in two reports this week.

The Government Accountability Office released two reports Sept. 20 on the FAA's costly and complex air traffic system. Auditors found that the FAA's IT system has many capabilities in place for acquiring software but needs more oversight of operational systems. And although the air traffic management system has improved since 1995, agency officials can do more to institutionalize improvements, according to GAO officials.

"At the project level, there is movement in the right direction in terms of putting these capabilities and processes in place, but there's nothing in place to institutionalize the processes," said David Powner, GAO director of IT management issues. "You want to have executive oversight in place. There's steps in the right direction to put the capabilities in place for acquiring software and to have the executive level boards to perform the appropriate oversight, but there's still room for improvement, especially where they would regularly review the full portfolio of investments."

FAA officials have established about 80 percent of the basic selection and control practices that they need to manage mission control investments, the report stated. However, the agency's senior IT investment board does not regularly review investments that are in the operational phase, which is a weakness in the FAA's ability to oversee more than $1 billion of its IT investments, auditors wrote.

Of the 900 air traffic control system and software management practices evaluated, 83 percent were largely or fully implemented. However, auditors found weaknesses in measurement and analysis, quality assurance and verification, which can increase the risk of cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls. FAA officials recommend air traffic control projects use a standard model, such as the Capability Maturity Model, which is a broad system that integrates multiple maturity models and is used to asses the maturity of FAA's software and systems capabilities.

"Without a strong senior-level commitment to process improvement and a consistent, institutionalized approach to implementing and evaluating it, FAA cannot ensure that key projects will continue to improve systems acquisition and development capabilities," GAO's air traffic control report stated. "As a result, FAA will continue to risk the project management problems, including cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls, that have plagued past acquisitions."

By 2010, an additional 2,000 controllers will be needed to respond to an anticipated increase in traffic, according to GAO officials. Since the beginning of this year, the FAA has lost nearly 400 controllers and has hired one. GAO officials predict that half of all air traffic controllers will retire in the next decade.

Since 1981, FAA officials have been working to modernize the agency's aging air traffic control system. Individual projects have suffered cost increases, schedule delays and performance shortfalls of large proportions, leading GAO officials to designate the program a high-risk IT initiative in 1995.

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