For Air Traffic Modernization, Bureaucracy is the Tie that Binds
By Kristen Knott, ATCA Writer and Editor
Whatever your qualms about the FAA’s levels of bureaucracy and their tenuous bonds to Congress, they’ve heard it all before. Loud and clear. They feel it too sometimes. At the top of their list (and yours) of challenges? Modernizing air traffic, of course.
Let’s be real about this conversation, the FAA panelists implore. The NextGen implementation transition period hasn’t gone exactly as planned. C’est la vie.
Instead, let’s look to the future, says moderator Kris Burnham of the FAA. Panelists participated all along the FAA pendulum swing: technical operations, budget, systems engineering, and NextGen. And just for fun, opposite ends of the industry contract world see-saw – Lockheed Martin and Harris Corporation – flanked the panel (although this seems like a good time to stress that Harris Corp’s Peter Challan, to raucous audience laughter, claimed that he in no way represents the views of his company on this panel).
The F&E capital budget for FY16 is $2.85 billion – the highest ever, says Tom Kelly of the FAA, in an effort to stay positive. "I think it’s a good signal that Congress is supporting the modernization [effort]."
And what about solving the paradox with privatization, the buzz word turned redheaded step child? Careful, says Burnham, it gives the perception it would fix everything. "It’s proven economically from a business model, but we’d have to continue to go through stakeholders," says Kelly.
Jeff McCoy of the FAA likes the idea of foregoing the current abundance of bureaucracy, especially when it comes to workforce development. "We lose about 20 percent of the people we want to hire because of the process," he says, adding that his camp recently released a new concept of operations that focuses on transitioning from systems to service.
"There are ways to get some advantages of the private industry without the whole privatization packet," says Fran Hill of Lockheed Martin.
"[Privatization] is that third rail," says Challen, noting that it’s often difficult to take the leap towards sweeping change. "So what happens is stagnation."
So, what’s to be done if there’s no easy fix?
"Just say no," says Challan, when the demands of maintaining legacy networks become too great, citing the success in implementing the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI). Is it that simple? Not really, says McCoy, whose team is responsible for the maintenance of these systems. "It’s not our decision to turn off [legacy systems]. If they’re left on, then they need to be maintained."
Contingency operations need to be further explored, McCoy continues.
But, there are options, says Michele Merkle of the FAA. "We need to start implementing enterprise solutions," she says, wondering aloud why the cloud can’t be utilized more for the NAS. "We’re trying to get away from point-to-point delivery."
Negotiating each option year of a service-based contract to help share control between government and industry is another possibility, says Hill. "It would deliver on increased network performance."
For Challan, it’s simple: "The time has come where the FAA needs to take a look at right-sizing where appropriate," he says. "Getting a new [FAA] administrator gives us an opportunity to true up our accounting. It’s a chance to take capital investment money and use it for capital investment purposes."
While Merkle points out that "politically, it wasn’t palatable to get rid of facilities," she knows the competing demands are great. "[However] from a NextGen perspective, we are aligning ourselves better for the future," she adds.
Should the FAA look to its successful SWIM program as an implementation model?
"[SWIM] was a pivotal program for transformation – we need to do more cost sharing with industry and FAA," says Kelly. "We’re always looking for every tool in the toolbox financially."
Amongst the other pressures stacked against the FAA when doing their modernization due diligence are keeping cyber threats at bay and integrating large UAS into the airspace.
Instead of pointing the finger at the FAA, let’s think outside the box, Burnham urges. "Creativity won’t necessarily come from within the FAA – it might come from our partners. We need to take better advantage of the benefits that technology provides."