FAA Is Audited YET AGAIN by DOT Inspector General for Its Progress With NextGen

When the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was signed into law on February 14, 2012, it included provisions intended to advance the “Next Generation Air Transportation System” or “NextGen” as it has been called for several years now.  One of the primary purposes of NextGen is to transform the management of the nations’ air traffic from a ground-based radar system to one that is satellite-based for improved safety, capacity and efficiency.  Because of the importance that Congress and the FAA have put on NextGen, it should come as no surprise that on the anniversary of the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that the USDOT Inspector General’s office announced that it was responding to Congress’ request to review FAA’s progress in meeting the NextGen provisions of the Act and has begun an audit that will (1) assess FAA’s progress and (2) identify challenges preventing FAA from the provisions of the Act.  This is ahead of the House Aviation Subcommittee’s hearing on February 27, 2013, at 10:30a entitled Implementation of the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act: One Year Later.

However, it is interesting to note that this is nowhere near the first time in the past year that the USDOT Inspector General has looked into the FAA’s progress with NextGen.  In fact, one year after the Act, the DOT Inspector General has five open audits concerning issues with the implementation of NextGen generally or particular components of NextGen.  Also, within the past year, the Inspector General issued three reports and testified before Congress once.  Each time, the Inspector General indicated that it had found the FAA’s implementation of NextGen to be wanting.

Since reauthorization of the FAA had been delayed for several years prior to the enactment of the Act, it could have been expected that the FAA would have been able to move quickly once the Act was passed, particularly with the long awaited NextGen programs.  But, a little over a month after the passage of the Act (April 23, 2012), the USDOT Inspector General issued a report entitled Status of Transformational Programs and Risks to Achieving NextGen Goals.  The Inspector General found that

FAA has not yet established total program costs, schedules, or performance baselines for any of the six NextGen transformational programs [i.e., Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, System Wide Information Management, Data Communications, NextGen Network Enabled Weather, NAS Voice System, and Collaborative Air Traffic Management Technologies], which limits visibility into the total costs and timelines required to achieve benefits.  In addition, FAA’s progress in implementing the programs has been limited by a lack of finalized program requirements.  Other risks to effectively implementing these programs include the lack of an integrated master schedule—a key planning tool to manage the programs’ interdependencies—as well as integration issues with complex automation systems.  The FAA concurred with three of our four recommendations and partially concurred with one.

The fact that the FAA concurred on three recommendation should indicate that those recommendations should be moving forward.  Yet, the Inspector General found it necessary to audit some of the key components of NextGen, announcing on May 9, 2012, that it was auditing the FAA’s efforts to streamline its processess for implementing new performance-based flight procedures, which, the Inspector General noted “are key building blocks for the Next Generation Air Transportation System.” A few days later (May 14, 2012), the Inspector General announced that it was auditing the FAA’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) program, which is a “cornerstone of efforts to modernize air traffic control from its present state into the Next Generation Air Transportation System.”  This audit was undertaken because various House Committees thought that the FAA was not moving fast enough with NextGen implementation.

Next, on July 19, 2012, the Inspector General announced that it was undertaking another audit of “underlying causes for FAA’s limited NextGen progress.”  That announcement indicated that the Inspector General was acting at the behest of the House transportation Committee and Aviation Subcommittee and that its audit objective would be to

(1) assess FAA’s progress with meeting key milestones for achieving NextGen capabilities, (2) examine possible underlying causes for FAA’s limited progress with advancing NextGen overall, and (3) review FAA’s recent reorganization and other efforts to improve the management and execution of NextGen initiatives.

Many of these issues were raised at the September 12, 2012, hearing of the House Committee on transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation regarding the FAA’s progress and challenges in advancing NextGen.  The Inspector General testified that that he saw three key challenges that “continue to impact FAA’s ability to realize NextGen’s benefits: “(1) implementing NextGen capabilities at congested airports; (2) resolving technical and program management problems with the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program; and (3) managing program costs and schedules in developing and implementing NextGen’s transformational programs.”  See also  Bringing NextGen Online Is Moving Slowly Say Department of Transportation Inspector General and GAO at House Subcommittee Hearing (September 13, 2012).

Then, a day later on September 13, 2012, the Inspector General issued a report on the FAA’s progress and problems with the “En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program that “will provide the foundation for NextGen.”  ERAM is a key NextGen enabling program for controlling high-altitude flights.  It replaces a 40-year old computer hardware and software system, plus a backup, and more than 800 computer display workstations at 20 of FAA’s Air Route Traffic Control Centers.  In that Audit Report, the Inspector General found that:

FAA has experienced extensive software problems with ERAM that have delayed the effort by almost 4 years, with cost increases that could reach in excess of $500 million.  FAA’s problems with ERAM are attributable to fundamental program management weaknesses as well as weaknesses in its contract—a contract that wasnot structured or administered to effectively manage costs and achieve desired outcomes.  Ultimately, ERAM’s delays pose significant risks to other critical NextGen initiatives. ERAM is on much stronger footing now than when we began our review, mostly due to sustained management attention by FAA leadership as well as focused risk management and close work with controllers.  However, while FAA has made strides towards improving its program and contract management for ERAM, considerable risk still lies ahead as FAA implements ERAM at some of the Nation’s busiest facilities.

Although the FAA concurred on 12 of the Inspector General’s 13 recommendations, the Inspector General issued a self-initiated follow-up report on December 19, 2012, indicating that the FAA has not adequately implemented the security requirements for ERAM.

With the new year, the Inspector General opened  another audit covering NextGen and the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.  This time the audit is required by the Act: the Inspector General must audit the FAA’s ADS-B information security controls, with the objective to evaluate how security issues are being addressed in the overall design and implementation of the ADS-B system (which is also currently the subject of an Inspector General’s audit).

Thus, as of February 18, 2013, there are several open audits, (at least it would seem so from the information available to the public on the OIG’s website) in the Inspector General’s office concerning NextGen and the FAA’s failure to timely and properly implement the provisions of the Act.

  1. May 9, 2012, Audit Initiated of FAA’s Efforts to Streamline Its Processes for Implementing New Performance-Based Flight Procedures.
  2. May 14, 2012, Audit Initiated of FAA’s Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) Program.
  3. July 19, 2012, Audit Initiated of Underlying Causes for FAA’s Limited NextGen Progress.
  4. January 23, 2013, Audit Initiated of FAA’s Information Security Controls of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast System.
  5. February 14, 2013, Audit Initiated of FAA’s Progress in Meeting the NextGen Provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.

In addition, over the past year the Inspector General has issued several reports regarding the FAA’s implementation of the Act in general, and NextGen in particular, and found the FAA’s efforts wanting.

  1. April 23, 2012, Status of Transformational Programs and Risks to Achieving NextGen Goals.
  2. September 12, 2012, Update on FAA’s Progress and Challenges in Advancing the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
  3. September 13, 2012, Weaknesses In Program And Contract Management Contribute To ERAM Delays And Put Other NextGen Initiatives At Risk.
  4. December 19, 2012, FAA Has Not Adequately Implemented Security Requirements for Its En Route Automation Modernization System.
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