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FAA's runway safety system off track

August 16, 1999
Web posted at: 11:04 a.m. EDT (1504 GMT)

by Colleen O'Hara

Federal Computer Week
air traffic control

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(IDG) -- A Federal Aviation Administration program designed to prevent runway incursions at airports is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, according to an audit report released last month by the Transportation Department inspector general.

The Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS), which uses radar data to alert air traffic controllers to potential runway conflicts, is experiencing problems mainly because of software development and human factors issues, such as alert messages that cannot be read by controllers at a distance, the report said.

The details on AMASS are part of a larger IG follow-up report that maintains that the FAA has been too slow in its efforts to reduce incidents of runway incursions. Incursions occur when an aircraft, person or object on the ground gets too close to or creates a collision hazard with arriving or departing aircraft. In some instances, a runway incursion has caused fatal accidents.

Although the FAA established a new action plan last year intended to reduce runway incursions, the number of these incidents has continued to climb, the IG report said. There were 325 runway incursions in 1998, 33 more than in 1997.
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As part of its runway safety program, the FAA plans to install 40 AMASS systems at airports across the country. However, the program already is four years behind schedule, and the agency will miss its August 2000 deadline to install the last system, the report said. In addition, the FAA expects AMASS to cost almost $90 million, up from about $60 million in 1993. The contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in 1990.

Software development problems have been the primary reason for delays and cost increases, but 14 human factors issues identified by controllers are causing additional delays. For example, controllers cannot read AMASS alert messages on the display from more than 10 feet away, which is a concern because controllers normally are more than 10 feet away from that screen during normal operations, the IG said.

The IG report recommended that the FAA revise the AMASS schedule to incorporate the most urgent human factors changes and identify and request additional funds for the program.

An FAA spokesman said the agency concurs with the IG's recommendations and already has taken actions to implement them. "The FAA remains very focused on the runway safety program," the spokesman said, adding that FAA administrator Jane Garvey meets monthly with associate administrators to make sure there is follow through on the initiatives in the action plan. In addition, the FAA has identified funding requirements for AMASS and will fix the majority of human factors issues by May, the report said.

Northrop Grumman said in a statement that it is working closely with the FAA to address the concerns. "Significant progress is being made to expedite deployment of the AMASS system," the statement said. "Production, delivery and installation of the baseline AMASS system has started. Additional enhancements to address recently raised human factors concerns are being developed. The additional proposed human factors changes have been prioritized and incorporated into the AMASS program." The company said it is "confident that the AMASS will contribute significantly to increased passenger safety."

Air traffic controllers would benefit from AMASS, said Bill Blackmer, director for safety and technology at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We would like to have an additional tool to tap us on shoulder and say, 'This isn't right,' " he said, adding that "any alert we get has to be accurate." AMASS currently relies on radar that is less accurate in detecting targets on the ground because of interference from surrounding buildings or objects. The FAA is working to reduce the number of false alarms by installing new software.

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