Officials Say Bye-Bye To Buyer Blues

Blank radar screens, dead radios and faltering electricity have dogged the air traffic control system for the last year. The troubles have spotlighted the Federal Aviation Administration's frustrating 15-year struggle to modernize its equipment. Congress exempted the FAA from federal purchasing rules last November in the hope of ending that frustration, and the agency has ambitious plans for making legislators' wishes come true.

Modernization's centerpiece, the advanced automation system, crumbled when its cost estimate ballooned from $2.5 billion in 1983 to $7.6 billion in 1994, while the project fell 8 years behind schedule. The program was restructured two years ago and the FAA has been scrambling ever since to make piecemeal upgrades while keeping outdated hardware and power systems running. The agency commissioned five to six new systems each workday during 1995 and purchased more than 100 new systems during the year. But such purchases have backfired in the past, when following torturous acquisition rules meant new equipment grew outdated before it was installed. Reform will cut acquisition time in half and reduce costs by 20 percent, according to FAA officials.

Reforms will focus on changing the ways FAA's acquisition staff works and is rewarded. Employees will receive continuous education and training and will get a share of any savings they achieve. Integrated product teams will provide cradle-to-grave coverage of every acquisition by creating partnerships among developers, users, providers and customers. No longer will FAA employees be barred from communicating with bidders after requests for proposal are issued nor will they be prevented from explaining why firms were not selected. These changes should reduce the number of protested bids. In addition, the FAA will streamline bid protests by using alternative dispute resolution and bringing protest adjudication in house.

Ditching the Federal Acquisition Regulation will let the FAA reduce documentation by 80 percent to 90 percent, speed the acquisition process and use more off-the-shelf items.

Three programs already have begun incorporating acquisition reforms.

  • The operational and supportability implementation system replaces and upgrades equipment the FAA uses to provide weather and flight planning information. The project is taking advantage of the ability to use commercial off-the-shelf products to save an estimated $380 million over its 20-year lifetime.
  • Installation of new technologies in oceanic systems will pave the way for "free flight," allowing airline pilots to plot their own course, speed and altitude. Reforms are allowing the FAA to decrease development and testing time.
  • Reform will ease delivery of the improved terminal weather system, which integrates weather data from the National Weather Service, pilot observations and the FAA into graphic and text formats air traffic controllers can use to brief pilots.

Even without acquisition reform, the FAA has had some recent success in speeding up equipment deliveries. On April 2, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena visited Chicago's O'Hare airport to announce a 10 percent raise for air traffic employees in the area and early delivery of a new display computer to replace a notorious 1960s vintage computer that converts data for presentation on controller's scopes. "It's almost a year ahead of schedule, that's the miracle," says Mark Scholl, head of the local air traffic controllers union. "I've never seen any piece of equipment arrive on time, let alone early."

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