GAO: NextGen over budget and behind schedule

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After causing the FAA to limp along on 23 temporary funding extensions, Congress finally passed a four-year authorization last month. A question now facing FAA watchers is: Will this steadier funding mean a smoothing of the turbulence the agency has seen in developing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)?

A report released Feb. 16 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that of 30 major NextGen programs studied, costs for 11 have increased from initial estimates by a total of $4.2 billion and 15 programs experienced delays ranging from two months to more than 14 years. Of the 15 programs experiencing schedule delays, 10 also had cost increases. The WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) program, which the FAA estimates will be completed in 2013, is the one experiencing the 14-year delay.

These delays and cost increases have been the result of several factors. The GAO reports lists them as (1) additional or unanticipated system requirements; (2) insufficient stakeholder involvement, such as controllers’ input; (3) underestimating the complexity of software development; and (4) unanticipated events, including funding shortfalls and work stoppages.

GAO selected four programs to analyze in depth. In these cases it was found that the FAA is not consistently following the characteristics of high-quality cost estimates and best scheduling practices that had been identified in other GAO examinations requested by Congress.

Regarding cost estimates, GAO found that although all four of the programs generally provided well documented and comprehensive estimates, they could not pin down specifics on each program. Each program estimate was not creditable because each lacked an independent cost estimate, which provides a check against the FAA’s estimate, the GAO report said.

The FAA catalogs its acquisition programs in an annually updated Capital Investment Program (CIP). The CIP identifies capital investment in the National Airspace System for the next five years. The CIP for fiscal years 2012 through 2016 contains 106 funded acquisition programs, with 83 of these programs accounting for more than $14 billion.

GAO reports an acquisition program baseline defines the cost, schedule and performance. The program can be “rebaselined” when major changes are made to a previously approved program. When a program is rebaselined, the FAA reports on the cost and progress based on the new costs and schedule. This means, the GAO report said, that the schedule and costs can be concealed from Congress and other stakeholders in the program. GAO recommends that the FAA regularly report on the overall, long-term performance in acquiring ATC systems by providing the original budget and schedule baselines for each program and the reasons for rebaselining. This would assure a more accurate accounting for program development, GAO officials said.

GAO officials add that to better estimate the cost and completion dates for major acquisitions, the FAA should, among other things, require cost and schedule risk analysis, independent cost estimates and integrated master schedules. The FAA did not comment on whether it agreed with the GAO’s recommendations.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


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