Air Traffic Control: Status of FAA's Implementation of the Display System Replacement Project

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-10-11.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                   United States General Accounting Office

GAO                Testimony
                   Before the Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on
                   Transportation and Infrastructure, House of

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                   AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL
11a.m. EDT
October 11, 1999
                   Status of FAA’s
                   Implementation of the
                   Display System
                   Replacement Project
                   Statement of Gerald L. Dillingham,
                   Associate Director, Transportation Issues,
                   Resources, Community, and Economic
                   Development Division

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We appreciate the opportunity to provide our observations on the status of
the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) implementation of the
Display System Replacement (DSR) project. DSR, which replaces the
controllers’ workstations and other equipment in the nation’s en route
centers,1 is one of FAA’s major projects under the air traffic control
modernization program. In 1981, FAA began a multibillion-dollar
modernization effort to improve the safety, the capacity, and the efficiency
of this system to meet the increasing demand for air traffic services and to
replace aging equipment. The agency plans to spend approximately
$41 billion on the modernization effort from fiscal years 1982 through
2004. FAA has historically experienced some major difficulties in
delivering modernization projects within cost, schedule, and performance
parameters.2 However, over the past couple of years, FAA has taken steps
to improve its management of the modernization program. In particular,
the agency has revised its approach to acquiring new systems by limiting
their scope to manageable segments. Continuing with its new approach to
modernization is key to allowing FAA to consistently deliver new systems
within established goals.

In this context, you asked us to address (1) the status of FAA’s overall
modernization program, (2) FAA’s progress in implementing DSR, with
particular emphasis on events surrounding Boston’s implementation, and
(3) opportunities for continued success by FAA in completing its
modernization projects. GAO has a long history of reviewing the
modernization program as well as individual projects, and this testimony is
based on prior reports and testimonies.3

My testimony today is structured around a series of slides (see app. I). In
summary, the slides show the following:

 En route centers, also called air route traffic control centers, are one of three types of facilities that
FAA uses to control air traffic. These facilities control planes in transit and during approaches to some
airports. The airspace that most en route centers control extends above 18,000 feet for commercial
aircraft. En route centers also handle aircraft at lower altitudes when dealing directly with a control
 Because of the size, the complexity, the cost, and the problem-plagued past of FAA’s modernization
program, we have designated it a high-risk information technology investment since 1995. It is one of
four high-risk system development and modernization efforts. See High-Risk Series: An Overview
(GAO/HR-95-1, Feb. 1995); High-Risk Series: Information Management and Technology (GAO/HR-97-9,
Feb. 1997); and High-Risk Series: An Update (GAO/HR-99-1, Jan. 1999).
 A list of related GAO products is attached.

Page 1                                                                              GAO/T-RCED-00-19
•   FAA’s revised approach to modernization—acquiring new systems by
    using a more incremental approach as opposed to its prior practice of
    tackling large, complex projects all at once—appears to be paying
    dividends. DSR, which evolved from FAA’s restructuring of the Advanced
    Automation System,4 reflects this incremental approach. With DSR, FAA
    has concentrated on replacing the controllers’ workstations and other
    supporting equipment and plans to add new functions and capabilities
    later.5 With the former project, FAA had attempted to do both—replace old
    equipment and add new functions concurrently. Another aspect of the new
    modernization approach involves working actively with the aviation
    community to make decisions more collaboratively, as opposed to
    unilaterally making decisions about air traffic control modernization.
    FAA’s decision to revise the schedule for implementing DSR at some
    facilities to minimize potential impacts on service, after collaborating with
    the aviation industry, is a positive example.

•   FAA has achieved a more successful implementation of DSR than other
    aspects of its modernization program. FAA developed DSR within its
    estimated cost and schedule milestones. Nationwide, DSR has been
    delivered to all of the facilities that were scheduled to receive it, and FAA
    is in various stages of testing and using it. One of these facilities (Boston)
    is expected to begin using DSR in a limited capacity next week and should
    begin full operations in January 2000. One lesson learned from the earlier
    implementation of DSR at en route facilities is that the transition to the
    new equipment, coupled with other factors, had an impact on FAA’s
    delivery of air traffic services. For example, FAA managers at some
    facilities added extra distance between aircraft (known as miles-in-trail)
    while controllers were becoming familiar with the new equipment. The
    extra distance, coupled with severe weather and other factors, contributed
    to delays. FAA has since modified its procedures, including revising the
    dates for Boston’s limited use of the equipment, to reduce the potential
    impacts associated with the transition.

•   FAA has an opportunity to replicate its success with DSR on other
    modernization projects that are underway and with future efforts.

     Advanced Automation System, the one-time centerpiece of the modernization program, was designed
    to replace the computer hardware and software, including workstations, used by controllers in air
    traffic control facilities. Numerous problems during development led FAA to restructure the project in
     One such capability already planned is the User Request Evaluation Tool, which is a “conflict probe.”
    This tool will provide controllers with a 20-minute “look ahead” to detect potential conflicts when
    considering pilots’ requests for altitude or route changes. Detection of potential conflicts early will
    help improve system safety and allow pilots to fly preferred routes that will save the airlines time and
    fuel costs.

    Page 2                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-00-19
                  However, it will be very important for the agency to continue to
                  incorporate the factors contributing to DSR’s success, namely (1) using an
                  incremental approach to modernization, (2) collaborating with internal
                  users (controllers and maintenance technicians) and with external users
                  (airline industry), and (3) implementing recommendations to improve the
                  modernization program. FAA has begun to take actions to develop a
                  complete systems architecture to guide modernization, improve its
                  investment management approach, develop mature software acquisition
                  capabilities, and change its organizational culture. As we have discussed in
                  our previous reports, shortcomings in these areas have led to problems in
                  the past. While FAA’s efforts to correct these shortcomings are
                  encouraging, more remains to be done. Additionally, as FAA embarks on
                  full implementation of DSR and other planned equipment upgrades to
                  improve safety and efficiency, it will be important for the agency to
                  continue to monitor efficiency measures to determine if the changes that
                  have been implemented are having the intended effect of minimizing
                  impacts on service.

                  For additional information about this testimony, please contact Gerald
Contact and       Dillingham at (202) 512-2834. Individuals making major contributions to
Acknowledgement   this testimony include Danielle Bartoni, Pete Maristch, John Noto, and
                  Belva Martin.

                  Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

             Page 4   GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 5       GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 6       GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 7       GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 8       GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 9       GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 10      GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Appendix I

Page 11      GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Related GAO Products

              Aviation Acquisition: A Comprehensive Strategy Is Needed for Cultural
              Change at FAA (GAO/RCED-96-159, Aug. 22, 1996) and Air Traffic Control:
              FAA’s Modernization Investment Management Approach Could Be
              Strengthened (GAO/RCED/AIMD-99-88, Apr. 30, 1999).

              Air Traffic Control: Observations on FAA’s Air Traffic Control
              Modernization Program (GAO/T-RCED/AIMD-99-137, Mar. 25, 1999).

              Air Traffic Control: Status of FAA’s Modernization Program (GAO/RCED-99-25,
              Dec. 3, 1998).

              Air Traffic Control: Evolution and Status of FAA’s Automation Program
              (GAO/T-RCED/AIMD-98-85, Mar. 5, 1998).

              Air Traffic Control: Observations on FAA’s Modernization Program
              (GAO/T-RCED/AIMD-98-93, Feb. 26, 1998).

              Air Traffic Control: Immature Software Acquisition Processes Increase
              FAA Systems Acquisition Risks (GAO/AIMD-97-47, Mar. 21, 1997).

              Air Traffic Control: Complete and Enforced Architecture Needed for FAA
              Systems Modernization (GAO/AIMD-97-30, Feb. 3, 1997).

              Air Traffic Control: Improved Cost Information Needed to Make
              Billion-Dollar Modernization Investment Decisions (GAO/AIMD-97-20, Jan. 22,

(348198)      Page 12                                                     GAO/T-RCED-00-19
Ordering Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information on
how to obtain these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with "info" in the body to:


or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:


United States                       Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office      Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001           GAO
                                 Permit No. G100
Official Business
Penalty for Private Use $300

Address Correction Requested