GAO: FAA too tight-lipped on budget

Federal Aviation Administration officials have not divulged how belt-tightening efforts needed to finish an overdue air-traffic control modernization program are affecting aviation safety systems. Without this information, lawmakers cannot evaluate the FAA’s budget requests, congressional auditors say.

A Government Accountability Office report released today states that FAA officials should clearly identify trade-offs they are making to reach their budget targets by highlighting those programs slated for increased funding and those slated for reduced funding.

For decades, GAO’s auditors have criticized the air traffic control system (ATC) modernization program for wasting taxpayer dollars in a series of costly schedule and performance miscalculations. A new FAA unit, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), was created in 2004 to streamline acquisitions at the agency.

GAO’s auditors said that ATO officials are not including all the pros and cons of cuts when they submit budget proposals for senior officials and lawmakers to review. “Without this type of information, decision-makers lack important details when considering FAA’s annual budget submissions,” the report states.

GAO officials recommended that the ATO deliver detailed annual reports to Congress.

The report cautiously praises ATO officials for reaching acquisition targets during their first year by attaining 80 percent of milestones and keeping 80 percent of critical program costs within 10 percent of the budget. ATO cut funding for some major systems that were not meeting goals.

“Given the problems FAA has had in acquiring major ATC systems for over two decades, it is too soon to tell whether meeting these annual performance goals will ultimately improve the agency’s ability to deliver system acquisitions as promised,” the report adds.

Today, the report’s authors said ATO’s recent work indicates a turning point.

“For the first time, in more than a decade, the FAA has set some goals and targets for acquisitions…and at least for the first year, they met them,” said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at GAO. “We’re not giving a full pass – [but] we’re saying this is a real good step in the right direction, something good for a change.”

Several congressional committee members, including House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), requested the report.

Davis issued a response to the report today, saying that his committee supports GAO’s recommendation because “Congress needs to know how ATC modernization efforts will proceed under funding reductions and whether this could adversely affect air traffic safety.”

He added that although the “FAA has taken steps to address the challenges associated with the acquisition of ATC systems, [it] still has more to do before it's cleared for take-off.”

The committee does not have plans to hold a hearing on the issue but will continue to monitor the situation, said committee spokesman Drew Crockett.

The cost of 13 of the 16 major FAA system acquisitions that GAO reviewed grew from $1.1 million to about $1.5 billion. Those systems also required schedule extensions ranging from one to 13 years. Several systems experienced safety-related performance problems.

One project, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) has run up $520 million in additional costs and is now projected to be completed in 2008 instead of this year. STARS will replace outdated, monochrome workstation screens with multicolor monitors in air-traffic controller facilities.

Last month, air traffic controllers said several interruptions affected STARS at the 18-month-old Boston Terminal Radar Approach Control facility.

Today’s GAO’s report notes that FAA officials were drafting a long-term plan for alternatives to STARS in February, including the existing Common Automated Radar Terminal System, which STARS was intended to replace. FAA officials have not ruled out keeping the current system as an alternative if STARS proves to be unaffordable or does not perform up to par.

Meanwhile, the Wide Area Augmentation System program, which was scheduled for installation in 2000, will be 13 years late and will cost an additional $1.5 billion. WAAS is an approach-and-landing system assisted by two satellites.

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