Sunday, May 15, 2011

ERAM -- “Key Log” in FAA’s NextGen

I just finished watching the hearing on FY 2012 FAA Budget from the Senate Committee on Appropriations. The things I do for y’all. I’m not listening to it again. The tools for watching the video are awful so I’m not going to provide my commonly accurate quotes -- even though I am going to use quotation marks to signify the gist of what was said. Every time you pause the video, it restarts at the beginning. You can move the slider bar around but it’s a huge hassle. Okay, I’m done justifying how I’m handling this.

You can watch what you’d like, of course. The only two witnesses were FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel. The prepared statements end -- and questions begin -- at the 43 minute mark. Most are boring. But if you have a pet issue in front of the FAA, that’s probably where you want to start. My pet issue is ERAM. That starts in earnest at the 75 minute mark.

Administrator Babbitt: “ERAM is more complex than people gave it credit.”

Maybe more complex than the people trying to sell it admitted. Controllers understand how complex it is. And how critical. I wrote this in 2007 -- when I first started discussing ERAM.

”And speaking of it’s route of flight, every change in the route of flight has to be communicated also. A deviation around weather, a change in speed, an equipment malfunction -- every little detail has to be passed to the next controller. That is what the ERAM software will do. And it has to happen in real time for thousands of flights. It is a complicated process that is beyond description.”

I really wish Administrator Babbitt well. We’re supposed to be on the same side. But obfuscation won’t get him out of the trouble he is currently in. Or should I say, NextGen/ERAM is in. And the FAA is obfuscating. Even Inspector General Scovel says so.

Speaking of which, pay attention when IG Scovel starts talking at 78:30. He says (again, paraphrasing), “Difficulties with ERAM will continue. Seattle and Salt Lake Centers were chosen as test facilities precisely because they are less complex. Installing ERAM at New York and Chicago Center will be more difficult. “

For a man not given to sounds bites, he gave a pretty good one. “NextGen has a log jam and ERAM is the key log.”

IG Scovel talked about SWIM too but I wasn’t as focused on it as I should have been.

Here was the really interesting part to me. In discussing the future of ERAM, IG Scovel got a little animated. “The Agency is too quick to declare temporary victory. For instance, their In-Service Decision was rapidly “suspended” in the face of protests from NATCA and an independent team the FAA put in place to evaluate ERAM.”

Now, I’ve got to do some explaining. I wrote the following when I got back from Communicating for Safety in Las Vegas back in March.

”The language the FAA is using is intentionally confusing but they are splitting hairs and proceeding with ERAM’s deployment. ERAM is not ready to be deployed. But yesterday, the FAA’s Chief Operating Officer, Hank Krakowski, signed off on turning ERAM on at Albuquerque (ZAQ), Minneapolis (ZMP) and Houston Centers (ZHU). ”

That decision by Krakowski was the “In-Service Decision” IG Scovel was referring to. The FAA said -- against all the evidence -- that they would proceed with turning ERAM on at ZAQ, ZMP and ZHU. That was when I hit the roof. And that is when the ERAM program went quiet. That forced me to be quiet too. I’ve got my suspicions about what is going on but I am way, way out on the edges of the information loop. If everybody in air traffic control stops talking, there is nothing for me to hear.

Again, I’m not reporter. And this silence of air traffic control is a mistake. But for the real reporters out there, you want a copy of that “In-Service Decision”. I think it’s code for “payday” but I can’t prove it. Now that DOT Inspector General Scovel has mentioned it, I can too. Be aware, as much as I respect IG Scovel -- I think he is incredibly knowlegable and well briefed -- I sense that he is holding back in his criticism of NextGen/ERAM too. Everybody involved knows that this program needs to work. We want it to work. It has to work.

Keep in mind that Hank Krakowski -- the guy that signed off on the “In Service Decision” -- has since resigned. This story is going to be a lot more important than a story about sleepy air traffic controllers. Speaking of which, a quick look at the dates might interest a skeptical person.

3-23-11 -- Story breaks about supervisor sleeping at DCA
3-24-11--- ERAM “In-Service Decision” meeting held
3-29-11 -- Hank Krakowski signs off on ERAM “In-Service Decision”
Date Unknown -- FAA “suspends” In-Service Decision.
4-14-11 -- Hank Krakowski resigns from FAA

Don Brown
May 15, 2011

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