ERAM: (Still) “Close Enough For Government Work”

The FAA has been continuing to test its En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) at its two keysite facilities, Salt Lake Center (ZLC) and Seattle Center (ZSE).

They’re now planning on expanding the program further (again), in spite of the significant ongoing bugs the software still has.

ERAM is one of the cornerstones of the FAA much touted NextGen system, and was intended to replace the aging HOST computer system that runs the radar displays at the FAA’s enroute air traffic control centers.

They first started testing ERAM in the fall of 2009 at Salt Lake Center (ZLC), and quickly discovered that it wasn’t even close to being ready for use with live air traffic.  That didn’t stop them then from continuing to test the system on live air traffic for months, including expanding the testing to other facilities (including the facility where I work, Minneapolis ARTCC or ZMP).

Eventually, in the spring of 2010, the FAA temporarily stopped testing ERAM on live traffic.

I don’t believe that they stopped as much because of the problems as much as because those problems were starting to be noticed outside the FAA.  As long as the FAA was able to quietly and secretly test the bug-ridden ERAM software on the flying public, they were willing to do so.

After all, neither the program contractor, Lockheed Martin, nor the FAA thought its many problems precluded it being used on live air traffic; they figured the air traffic controllers could simply work around its many problems.

At that time the ERAM program had already fallen well behind schedule, and was rapidly going over budget.

However, the ongoing problems with the software eventually made it into the press, and the FAA was forced to slow down the ERAM program.

They stopped testing ERAM on live traffic, and spent months on further software development.  Then last fall the FAA started testing ERAM on live traffic again first at ZLC, and then ZSE.

While the project has made progress, it’s still fraught with problems.  They had a major problem this last December with ERAM at ZSE forcing them to revert back to the HOST computer system.

The system is also still experiencing what they call “regression” issues with the software, which means that whenever they fix some bugs, they create others, a problem they’ve had from the very beginning of the program.

Additionally, there are still some significant problems (critical bugs) with the system that would interfere with controllers’ abilities to keep airplanes safely moving through the airspace system.

Because of the continuing problems, a recent Independent Operational Assessment (IOA) on ERAM at the keysites determined that the program was not ready for further deployment at other facilities.

The controllers’ union, NATCA, who has been extensively involved helping test and debug the ERAM system, agreed with the findings of the IOA.

In spite of that however, the FAA decided to declare an In Service Decision (ISD) for ERAM, which means they can now start testing it on live air traffic at other facilities.  My facility (Minneapolis Center, ZMP) is next on the list to start testing.

Since the FAA decided to start deploying ERAM and testing it on live air traffic last year, well before it was ready for that purpose, it comes as no surprise to me whatsoever that they’re willing to do it again.

In fact, I predicted that a little less than a year ago.

FAA officials apparently admit “concerns” about the ERAM transition, but will the FAA choose to start using it again on live traffic before it’s ready regardless?

I’m betting they will, simple because they willingly and knowingly have already done that.

The entire ERAM program continues to fall further and further behind schedule, and is running millions over budget because of the continuing problems.  With the Federal budget showdown in Washington, it was just a question of time before the FAA managers in charge of ERAM started panicking again and rushing ahead with the program again.

If they can tell Washington and the taxpayers that ERAM is up and running, and deployed at more and more facilities, in spite of the problems it will make it look like they’ve done their jobs.

But unlike the last time they tried this gambit, this time plenty of people are paying attention.

The cost overruns and problems with ERAM have resulted in a Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (IG) audit that was initiated last fall, the results of which are supposed to be completed this summer.

Considering the continuing problems, it begs the question: how much more time and money will the FAA (and the government) invest in ERAM?

But in the meantime, the ERAM program continues to be an FAA money pit.

One comment

  1. That is the million or billion dollar question, how much more money will the FAA pour into ERAM. I suspect quit a bit since they have told congress that it is essential for NexGen. Ask a 100 FAA’ers down at 800 Independence Ave what NexGen is an you will get a hundred different answers.

    Originally I thought it was GPS navigation but wait, don’t I remember ADS-B at ZHU going live? “gasp” on a Host machine (screams) and Washington folks were there falling over each other tying to take credit for it.

    Oh, another one I forgot, ERAM “will” reduce controller work load through the use of automated tools. Hmm well that sounds good, but the last I checked with friends at ZLC and ZSE, what? 4 and 5 controllers required to work one position because of work arounds? Do tell.

    ERAM isn’t going to be ready for ICAO 2012? But the hard to maintain, conceive of, and only 5 people left alive (poor dears) who understand the Host system will be ready for ICAO 2012, hmm. What hundreds of Lock-heads couldn’t do a few humble aging senior citizens FAA’ers and long term contractors are managing to do ICAO on the obsolete, hard to understand, poorly documented Host system. I was so glad to get out of DC and back home to ZXX, the DC folks are, well let’s just say people from DC.

    Oh I almost forgot one bit of scuttlebutt I picked up from my Washington tripping was ERAM, yea, step one to EnRoute privatization. Lockheed owns the code, “so what a controller says”, automation persons all types of alarms go off in their heads. ERAM has to do a Tech Refresh soon but guess what? the FAA hasn’t any money. Lockheed steps up and say “We’ll save the day, we’ll purchase the hardware” check-mark number 2.

    One final note an old boss of mine told me when I was but a kid. Kid he told me “The FAA doesn’t want to be in the air traffic control business, they want to be in the business of monitoring the air traffic control system” It took me years to understand the difference between the two. Just a note of caution to my many friends who work the boards day in and day out and who hands down the finest in the world. Make ERAM work to Spec, they are coming for probably not your job but the job of the person that you are training now.

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