Psssst ! Hey Kid !

Have I got a deal for you ! If the FAA’s latest media blitz about NextGen reminds you of a street vendor in New York City trying to sell you something, You might want to listen to the little voice inside that is telling you it’s too good to be true.

Being retired, I forget that there is a whole new generation of controllers out there that hasn’t seen the FAA at work. They’re too busy trying to figure out how to survive on their 30 percent pay cut to realize that the FAA has tried to sell the public a nice shiny package with a brick wrapped inside before. I stumbled on this article from Baseline today. I think I’ve read it before but it’s well worth reading again -- or for the first time for the new guys. See if this doesn’t sound familiar.

The Ugly History of Tool Development at the FAA

”Certainly the Federal Aviation Administration's Advanced Automation System (AAS) project dwarfs even the largest corporate information technology fiascoes in terms of dollars wasted. Kmart's $130 million write-off last year on its supply chain systems is chump change compared to the AAS. The FAA ultimately declared that $1.5 billion worth of hardware and software out of the $2.6 billion spent was useless.“

That ought to give you some perspective on the relative size of the failure. There once was a time -- before the current banking failures -- when a billion dollars was big money.

”The AAS was supposed to provide a complete overhaul of the nation's major air traffic control computer systems, from new tools and displays for controllers to improved communication equipment and a revamped core computer network. It didn't even come close. “

Does that sound like NextGen ? ERAM ?

”Here's how the General Accounting Office put it: "FAA did not recognize the technical complexity of the effort, realistically estimate the resources required, adequately oversee its contractors' activities, or effectively control system requirements." “

Sounding familiar yet ?

”Things did not start out well for AAS, which was conceived in 1981, at about the time that the Reagan administration broke a strike by air traffic controllers and fired more than 11,000 of them.“

How about the timing ? How many controllers have retired from the FAA in the last few years ?

”The overambitious agenda was aggravated by excessive faith in new technologies.“

Can you say ADS-B ?

”Robert Britcher, now a systems engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University who worked on AAS for IBM and wrote about it in his book, "The Limits of Software: People, Projects, and Perspective," from which comes the quotation about the project's place in the history of work. He says that in contrast to the FAA's first, punch-card-driven air traffic control computer systems—where the difficulty of the job was clearly recognized—IBM and the FAA approached AAS as if it ought to be relatively easy, thanks to object-oriented programming languages, modern development tools and distributed systems. “

I knew there was a reason that book (The Limits of Software) was on my reading list. It didn’t look exciting enough for anyone to buy it as a gift. I guess I’ll have to order it myself. Maybe you should too. Do you think anyone in the FAA’s NextGen office has read it ?

Don Brown
December 5, 2008


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