FAA on PR Swing

WASHINGTON (07/24/2000) - Air traffic controllers do not use grease pencils and tape to track aircraft anymore, as some may still believe.

In an effort to highlight its progress in modernizing its systems, key U.S.

Federal Aviation Administration officials and air traffic controllers held a briefing July 18 at the Wash-ington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., where the FAA this month dedicated a new set of workstations for air traffic controllers to use to manage aircraft en route between airports.

The installation of Display System Replacement (DSR) workstations marked the end of a five-year project to replace the systems in air route centers across the country. Last September, the FAA finished replacing the decades-old host computer systems that process air traffic data displayed on controller workstations.

"We've really completed the modernization stage for the en route air traffic control system," said Steve Zaidman, FAA associate administrator for research and acquisitions.

Despite the milestone, however, the FAA is still having trouble recovering from the 1994 failure of its Advanced Automation System program, which ended up costing the agency about $1.5 billion. The FAA launched AAS in 1988, awarding a contract to IBM Corp. to modernize the systems throughout all air traffic control centers. But six years later, as schedules continued to slip and costs continued to rise, the FAA broke up AAS into smaller projects.

FAA officials insisted last week that things have changed as they showed off the goods at the Leesburg center, which features a new host computer system and the high-tech, color DSR.

The $1 billion program to modernize en route air traffic control centers has improved the controls, communications switches, and audio and visual warnings.

No piece of operational equipment at the Leesburg center is older than 1997.

That same model of incremental improvement will be copied in the terminal-area centers, Zaidman said.

The controllers used the new equipment with ease, even though it became operational only a week earlier, said Chuck Reavis, manager of the Leesburg center.

"One of the biggest things that's changing for automation is the work force," Reavis said. "The bulk of our work force now has grown up in the computer generation. They are willing to try new things."

Information technology experience is providing benefits within FAA as well.

Controllers have played an integral part in ironing out the bugs in new automation systems - such as DSR and the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System - which were discovered to have serious human interface issues.

They are also being brought in early to help design new information technology.

A combination of IT and better communication between controllers and pilots is being used to create Free Flight, which will enable controllers and pilots to find routes that will save time and fuel, said John Thornton, FAA's director of Free Flight Phase 2.

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