About Time, or Better Late Than Never

The FAA is finally taking a break from its thoughtless, irresponsible and reckless pursuit of testing its next generation enroute air traffic control display software on the flying public.

Within the last few days, apparently the FAA has decided to stop running the new software on live traffic and make an “assessment” of the program, although certainly not by its own accord.

Since last year, the FAA has been routinely running its En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM software), still under development, on live traffic, with many known critical bugs at three key sites, including including Salt Lake Center (ZLC), Seattle Center (ZSE), and Minneapolis Center (ZMP).

In spite of the fact that the FAA and the program contractor, Lockheed Martin, knew of many significant bugs with the software, the FAA opted to run the software nonetheless, often playing down the seriousness of the problems.

New versions of software addressed a few of the significant bugs while at the same time ignoring most of them.  That fact didn’t prevent the FAA from trying the latest versions on live air traffic anyway.

And predictably, the bugs that hadn’t been fixed in the latest software versions inevitably cropped up again, in some cases leading to a shutdown of the ERAM software with a fallback to the legacy HOST software.

What was the FAA’s primary motive for testing software that they knew had significant bugs?  Apparently in part to meet timelines and deadlines for the software deployment which is falling further behind schedule, as well as ensuring that the program’s contractor, Lockheed Martin, gets cash bonuses built into the contract.

Under pressure from the controller’s union, NATCA, who started telling congressmen and senators about the problems with ERAM, and those controllers helping work on the project, some of whom were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in correcting significant known bugs with the software, (and this writer would like to believe some other negative publicity) the FAA eventually agreed to stop running it on live air traffic for the time being and instead make an assessment of the program.

The FAA knew that the more opposition grew to the program the harder it was going to be to “fly under the radar” and continue with its reckless approach.  Many of the critical problems they have had with ERAM weren’t corrected in spite of numerous software updates, negating the FAA’s claim that the program was progressing satisfactorily.

A large part of the problem was that the ERAM software clearly wasn’t developed to the point of being ready for use to separate live air traffic when the FAA started using it for exactly that.  Even if all the critical known bugs were magically fixed today, ERAM still probably wouldn’t be ready for use with real air traffic, but it certainly would be a lot more suitable for that task than it currently is.

I have no doubt that the FAA would have continued with its “damn the torpedoes” approach were it not for increasing opposition from the controller workforce and its union.

Unfortunately for the FAA, the more controllers that were exposed to running the ERAM program, the more visibility the problems got, none of which were going away.

That sorry state of the software was only going to lead to bad publicity that the FAA didn’t want.

It was months too late for the FAA to stop the current course of the entire ERAM program deployment, and I have no doubt that the FAA would never have stopped to make an assessment of the ERAM program on its own.  After all, they seemed to think everything was going fine.

The state of development for the entire ERAM program is obviously well behind where it should be, and although lots of others recognized that fact, as an organization the FAA was either in denial or oblivious. Considering what happened with the Initial Sector Suite System (ISSS) program decades ago, it’s obvious the FAA has learned nothing over the years (or has simply forgotten).

The only acceptable and responsible course of action now is for the FAA to force Lockheed Martin to correct all the known critical bugs before the ERAM software is accepted for further use in separating live air traffic.

Anything short of that will inevitably put us right back where we started, and likely back into the same dangerous and faulty cycle.

However, knowing the FAA I believe that this assessment will likely result in a decision which will amount to merely “trying to do better”, rather than a real commitment to fix the known problems before further using the flying public as beta testers/guinea pigs for the ERAM software.

That’s because the FAA has already demonstrated that it’s willing to run faulty software because they’re more concerned about the ERAM deployment schedule than anything else.

They’re panicking because the clock is ticking.  The HOST software contract has already been extended.  The ERAM program schedule continues to slip.  Failing to hold Lockheed Martin to a higher standard isn’t going to make the ERAM problems go away, but is conducive to staying (more) on schedule, in spite of the fact that it puts the flying public at risk.

The FAA has always assumed (and will continue to assume) that air traffic controllers will be able to work around ERAM’s deficiencies and keep airplanes separated nonetheless.

Keep in mind that none of this precludes the FAA from continuing to run/test the ERAM software; it merely won’t be used on live traffic for the time being at the key sites.

Testing of ERAM in the background will continue, and will likely reduce the margins of safety and increase controller workload by forcing them to work live traffic on its outdated DARC/EBUS backup computers without flight plan processing so that ERAM can use the interfaces between the various facility computer systems.

But unlike ERAM, at least the DARC/EBUS software properly tracks radar targets…

2 comments

  1. President Eisenhower warned about the Government and industry becoming to intertwined with each other in his famous speech about the “Military Industrial Complex”

    In the early days of ERAM when attending ERAM requirements meetings it quickly became apparent that the Lockheed folks were open to suggestion but the FAA program office types were not. Lockheed was their “sole integrator” and they wouldn’t tolerate someone from the field asking Lockheed in-depth questions. The entire attitude in the room came from FAA personnel giving you grief for not being part of “The Team”.

    Then there were the FAA only meetings where the program office types assured us that the FAA was having their “Come to Jesus” sessions with Lockheed but who had converted who was abundantly clear. After, that total waste of my time, I boarded a plane back to ZXX and told my boss I’m not going back!

    The FAA had allowed itself to fall into the trap that Eisenhower had warned about 50 years earlier. Because of the lack of oversight and allowing Lockheed to pass along a faulty system we are at this point today. It is the correct decision to halt live testing in a rush to field the system. It was a critical mistake to exclude the controllers from the process and expect them to simply work around critical problems.

    You could see this coming and couldn’t understand how the D.C. folks couldn’t see what they were doing was wrong. Our relationships with the contractors who build our air traffic systems are seriously flawed. When was the last time you had your car to a mechanic for repairs and agreed to pay cost, plus a fixed fee and if he put your car back together a bonus and if it started another bonus and if the problem was fixed yet another bonus. At the end of the day we did this too ourselves, the FAA is at fault. The folks in Washington better grow up and realize Lockheed is a for profit company, it operates in its own self interest. You have been fleeced as ATC-FREQ’s correctly points out you failed to heed the lessons of past failures, now you, very well may be… History!

  2. We are about to go DARC at ZMP. They will be testing ERAM between us and ZLC. The testing will NOT be on live traffic. They will be using an area we call “Area 51” to run ERAM while the rest of us are DARC.

    Let the fun begin!

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