Friday, July 27, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- July 26

I’m a day late (and probably a dollar short) but I thought this too important to skip.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

Jul 26, 1985: FAA announced the award of a contract for replacement of the IBM 9020 computers at the nation's 20 air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) as part of the agency's Advanced Automation Program. IBM won the replacement contract in a competition with Sperry Corp. under a pair of contracts that had been announced on Sept 22, 1983. The new installations were designated the "Host" Computer Systems (HCSs) because of their ability to run the existing 9020 software package with minimum modifications. Using the IBM 3083-BX1 computer as its key element, the Host system would provide greater speed, reliability, and storage capacity. Each installation would consist of two units, one serving as the primary processor and the other providing support and backup. (See Mar 22, 1983, and May 29, 1987.) In addition to installing the Host systems at the ARTCCs, IBM agreed to supply the systems to teams working on the other major element of the Advanced Automation Program, the Advanced Automation System (AAS). Under a pair of contracts announced on Aug 16, 1984, IBM and Hughes Aircraft Co. were engaged in a competition to produce the best AAS design (see Jul 26, 1988). Among the key elements of AAS were controller work stations, called "sector suites," that would incorporate new display, communications and processing capabilities. AAS would also include new computer hardware and software to bring the air traffic control system to higher levels of automation. Once the full AAS system was operational, FAA planned to begin the integration of en route and terminal radar control services at the ARTCCs, which would be renamed Area Control Facilities (ACFs) and expanded to handle the new functions (see Apr 19, 1993). Among the planned future enhancements to AAS was Automated En Route Air Traffic Control (AERA), which would automatically examine aircraft flight plans to detect and resolve potential conflicts.

In July of 1985, I’d been in the FAA for less than 4 years. I distinctly remember a guy (that had sipped the kool-aid one time too many) saying that AAS (Advance Automation System) would replace half the controllers in the country and that we’d just “monitor” the air traffic. Nothing much changed in my entire career. The FAA kept trying to replace us with computers and controllers kept doing what they do best --controlling air traffic.

In case anyone is still wondering why I post these history lessons, it’s the old saying -- those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The FAA’s efforts to automate control were doomed for my entire career and will continue to fail with NextGen. The FAA culture continues to go down that path the kool-aid-drinking gentleman I mentioned above took. Humans make lousy monitors. Humans make decisions. They must be engaged. Take them “out of the loop” and their decisions become faulty. Until the FAA learns to design the technology to fit the human instead trying to make the human fit the technology, the FAA will continue to fail. AAS was one of the biggest technology failures in government. It has become a textbook case on how a project fails. The figures vary but 2.5 billion dollars wasted is the figure most often used. And that was back when a billion dollars was real money.

Lest you forget, that was your money.

Don Brown
July 27, 2007

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