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FAA Soldiers on in Nationwide ATC Upgrade

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) might get the prize for having a mission that’s the simplest to state, but the most complex to implement: Keeping air transportation safe. You have to click two pages deep from FAA’s home page to find its brief mission statement: “Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”

The agency has been making steady progress in its signature project, converting the ground-based radar system for air traffic control to one using the geographical positioning system. The NextGen system has technology that’s been proven to work, but it requires large expenditures — both by the government and by airlines and other operators of aircraft — and painstaking testing to install and deploy an air transport system as large and complex as that of the U.S. Eventually, NextGen will serve both the efficiency and safety goals of the FAA. Airplanes will be able to fly much closer to one another safely, and that will enable the use of air routes that are shorter and more efficient than current technology allows.

One member of the team making that happen is the FAA’s chief acquisition officer, James Washington. Working in tandem with FAA’s CIO and chief financial officer, he is part of the approval board for the agency’s significant acquisitions.

Right now, NextGen is in operation in the Gulf of Mexico area and Louisville, Ky. They use a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, which basically gives pilots the same information display in their cockpits that controllers on the ground have, and it is a foundation block of NextGen. 2010, according to Washington, will be a year of expanding ADS-B geographic coverage, including the Colorado mountains, Juneau; Ala; and Philadelphia. The plan now is for ADS-B to be nationwide by 2013. NextGen in totality is scheduled for 2018 completion, according to the latest plan.

Someday a book will be written about NextGen, but in the meantime FAA has many other projects going on, Washington pointed out. “You have specific transportation programs, and a host of significant investments to support them via administration — including where we have no automation support today,” he said.

One of those, surprisingly, is in contracting, which is mostly manual at the FAA. A project called the Automated Contract Management System, designed to end much of the paperwork, is now in the market survey stage, Washington said. The FAA is asking vendors to identify basic capabilities of such a system. The FAA since 1996 has been exempted from operating under the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and consequently can speed faster through the down-select stage, and entertain more oral presentations than other agencies.

The resulting system will support investment analysis, bid evaluation and contract writing required to award contracts.

FAA awarded $3.7 billion in contracts in fiscal ’09, and Washington said about 29 percent of the dollars went to small businesses. Towards the end of the last fiscal year, FAA established a contracting program called eFAST, or Electronic FAA Accelerated and Simplified Tasks. It’s a master ordering agreement with some 100 small businesses, 8(a)s, women-owned, and other disadvantaged businesses. The 7-year deal has an ordering ceiling of $2 billion for a variety of engineering and technical services.

The program’s acronym is no coincidence. Washington said that sole-source awards under eFAST can return the requirements in two weeks, after collaboration between the program office needing the service and Williams’ contract shop. Competitive bids can be completed in six weeks.

A third effort within FAA: “We have a huge focus on cyber security in the agency,” Washington said. The FAA is taking what he called a “systemwide, enterprise approach that’s global, not specific to each program investment.” The cyber security architecture includes the NextGen efforts.

For its 2010 budget, FAA received $2.9 billion for air traffic modernization, what the agency called facilities and equipment. This is $11 million more than the agency requested, and $194 million more than it received in 2009. The agency had requested $790 million specifically for NextGen, but in the omnibus appropriation signed by the president late last year, it received $834 million.

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