In a “minibus” funding bill signed by President Obama on Nov. 18, Congress denied a funding upgrade request by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program, part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).
The FAA had requested $64.5 million for the ERAM upgrades, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee, but received zero funding for fiscal year 2012. The FAA was “directed to pay for all ERAM-related program activities from the facilities and equipment account until ‘operational readiness is achieved at Salt Lake or Seattle Center,’” according to Professional Aviation Safety Specialists IL3.
FAA documentation states that the upgrades to ERAM are meant to correct various deficiencies in the current ERAM system, including automation deficiencies in airplane separation services; insufficient information coordination among air traffic controllers; and failure to take full advantage of performance-based navigation.
ERAM, which was designed to replace the current HOST computer system used at the FAA’s high altitude en route centers, processes flight radar data and communications and generates display data to air traffic controllers.
The program will support satellite-based systems, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and data communications technologies to clear the way for future gains in safety and efficiency, according to FAA documentation.
The ERAM software program had reportedly been plagued by failures at testing sites such as Salt Lake City, Seattle and Minneapolis airports. Testing was suspended for a period of time, but in July, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told The Argonaut that testing at Salt Lake City and Seattle was successfully completed and the program was being used to control live traffic at those facilities.
ERAM has been undergoing testing at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in Palmdale since May 2010. The center handles high altitude airspace over Southern California, including aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and portions of Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
Calvin Scovel, III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, testified at an Oct. 5 House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation that “ERAM’s problems are the direct result of poor programs and contract management.”
At the hearing, Scovel also stated “FAA and its contractor, Lockheed Martin, were overly optimistic that ERAM could be fielded within one year and ignored early warning signs of trouble during initial site deployment. Air traffic controllers at Salt Lake and Seattle have managed to use work-arounds to make ERAM work, but as ERAM rolls out to more complex ARTCCs, controllers are not going to be able to engage the same work-arounds.”
At a previous hearing in 2010, Scovel said, “The in-service decision is based on testing to verify performances and operational readiness. For ERAM, the Operational Readiness Decision (ORD) is the final operational readiness certification that is required for the system to become operational and no longer require retention of the HOST computer system as a back-up.”
Scovel continued, “When contractors (Lockheed Martin) delivered the software code to the FAA for final acceptance testing in March 2008, it appears that an incomplete version of the product was presented to the technical center initially. It was lacking some of the key software code, that portion being specifically that would enable key interfaces between the test sites in Salt Lake and Seattle and other air traffic facilities. The center never had an opportunity to test those interfaces.”
Scovel predicted that additional costs to the program would be close to $500 million.