Another Report on ERAM: Late and Over Budget

A reader tipped me off to an article regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) project on FierceGovernmentIT dated January 19th, 2011.  (Thanks, Dave!)

The article states that ERAM:

…won’t reach nationwide operational readiness until August 2014 and will cost $330 million more than expected…

But it’s no news that the ERAM project has been delayed by problems, and those problems are costing the government (and the taxpayers) millions.

I’ve been patiently waiting to read the results of an Office of Inspector General audit on the ERAM program that was initiated in September of 2010.  I know that many of those working on the ERAM project at my facility were interviewed by the Inspector General last fall for their audit, so it will be interesting if and when that report appears what it says too.

(It’s unknown what the status of that audit currently is.)

Apparently the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also contracted out a review of ERAM in a letter dated June 1st of 2010 to the MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD).

FierceGovernmentIT got wind of the 197 page report completed in October of 2010, and eventually obtained a copy of it through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  According to the FOIA reply dated January 12, 2011, the request was made only a few days after the review was completed, on October 12th, 2010, so it took the FAA three months to actually cough up a copy of the report.

Notably, each page of the report is marked,  “For Official Use Only.  Not approved for public release.”  (So much for transparency in government…)

MITRE somehow knew that the FAA wouldn’t want any report highlighting the problems with ERAM easily accessible to the general public.

The MITRE CAASD report is the result of an FAA request for an “independent review” of the ERAM program.  The “Tasking Letter” (Appendix A, page 161 of the report) was signed by both James H. Washington (FAA Acquisition Executive) and Richard L. Day (Senior VP, Operations).

Never mind that MITRE is hardly independent, nor impartial; they work primarily under contract for the Federal Aviation Administration.  From their own “About Us” section of their website:

MITRE has a longstanding relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Since 1958, the year MITRE first opened its doors, we have helped the FAA address the nation’s most critical aviation issues.

Our role was enhanced in 1990 when the FAA created a Federally Funded Research and Development Center and selected MITRE to operate it. The new entity is the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD).

Even they couldn’t sugar-coat the state of the ERAM project, quantifying what those working with ERAM already know: that the program has more than its share of problems and is far from ready for nationwide use.

Why the FAA would need to spend more money for someone else to tell them their ERAM program is a mess, a program that’s already been bleeding funds for years and is falling further and further behind schedule, is beyond me.

Maybe it’s because the FAA higher ups are in disbelief that the program isn’t going well.  Maybe they were actually believing the press releases they were spewing as recently as last year that ERAM was on schedule and on budget.

Maybe those at FAA Headquarters felt misled by those managers in the field that were telling them that ERAM was progressing nicely; eventually found out it really wasn’t, and now doesn’t trust their own managers to give accurate reports on the status of the program.

Maybe it’s a way for the FAA to cover for the cost overruns and delays.  Now that the ERAM problems are no longer a secret, asking for reports and coming up with plans to address the problems buys them more time.

Finally, maybe it’s a tacit admission by the FAA that they’re in way over their heads and are now looking for an outside expert to tell them how to fix what ails the ERAM program, instead of listening to their program managers’ and the contractor’s (Lockheed Martin) claims that all is fine.

If the latter is true, it’s better late than never I guess.  That is, as long as they actually heed those reports, which they likely won’t.

They’ll do what the FAA always does:  cherry-pick just a few of the easier recommendations and follow them, claiming that they’re following the advice of the report (albeit only in small part), and otherwise continue to do business as usual.

After all, up until last spring many within the FAA thought the ERAM program was progressing just fine.  There are plenty within the FAA that still think ERAM is fine.

The project contractor, Lockheed Martin doesn’t care because once the FAA formerly accepted ERAM, the longer it takes the more money the contractor makes.

In the meantime, controllers at my facility (Minneapolis Center or ZMP ARTCC) are now getting a second course of training (refresher) in preparation for live ERAM use, which is supposed to happen again for us this spring.  ZMP will be the third facility to run ERAM on live traffic (again) since it’s an alternate key site.

We’ve now heard that one of the new “features” of ERAM (the addition of a Runway Visual Range/RVR field for each aircraft included in their flight plan) finally got removed because after years of working on it they still couldn’t get the data to properly pass to the facilities that needed the RVR.

Now that ERAM has become another FAA money pit, they’re starting to strip out things they can’t get to work and didn’t need to begin with.  Instead of working on the basic functionality needed to keep airplanes apart, they’ve been distracted all along with developing features controllers don’t need.

That’s what happens with non-controllers design a system without input from the experts who know what tools they need to do their jobs.

We’ve also heard that in meetings ERAM managers are now trying to decide what problems to spend money on to fix and which ones to ignore.

However, it was only a little over a month ago (December 14th, 2010) that while running ERAM on live air traffic, the second key site facility to go live with ERAM (Seattle Center or ZSE) had a series of circumstances that resulted in every single ERAM radar display to fail (red “X”) in succession.  That evening they reverted back to their old HOST computer system until software changes could be made to ERAM.

After those patches were made a few weeks later ZSE started running ERAM again on December 27th.

The event highlighted the probability that as ERAM is progressively deployed into facilities that run more and more traffic that there will be a higher likelihood of those series of yet undiscovered series of circumstances occurring with catastrophic results to the ERAM system.

From the FAA Administrator’s Fact Book (page 9):

Air Route Traffic Control Center Activity, Aircraft Handled Jan-Jun 2010:

Seattle Center (ZSE) 574,000

Salt Lake Center (ZLC) 632,000

Minneapolis Center (ZMP) 877,000

Atlanta Center (ZTL)  1,394,000

Seattle Center (ZSE) is the least busiest enroute center in the lowest 48 states, yet they still encountered a problem that crashed the entire ERAM system in the facility.

ERAM is getting better.  But the December 14th incident at ZSE proved it’s still not ready for use at the busier facilities.

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