Aviation safety is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. After all, I worked in that field (as an air traffic controller) for nearly thirty-five years. It’s also a subject about which I’ve not blogged in some time. In other words, I’m long overdue and something has turned up in the news in such a way as to allow me to say, “I told you so.”
Host is the automation system that has run our nation’s en route air traffic control systems for some forty years. Host originally ran on the IBM 9020 mainframe, a computer system that dates back to 1964 and which was first installed in FAA en route facilities in the late 1960s. That mainframe infrastructure has been upgraded twice — first to the IBM 3083 and later to the IBM 9672 — however the original Host system remains pretty much as it did upon implementation.
Yes. You read that correctly. The computer automation used in the en route environment in the United States dates back to a system that was developed almost fifty years ago.
Those who’ve followed this blog since its inception know that former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey (with the considerable help of Congressman John Mica of Florida’s 7th Congressional District) managed in just five short years to destroy twenty-five years of rebuilding efforts following in the wake of the illegal PATCO strike that occurred on August 3, 1981. She managed to do this by in effect declaring war on her own controller workforce, freezing pay, illegally imposing an unnegotiated “contract,” and removing controllers and their input from all equipment modernization programs. Considering that controllers (understandably) become eligible for retirement from this stressful, nerve-wracking, and very demanding job after only twenty-five years of service, and understanding that 1981 + 25 = 2006 . . . . Well, you can imagine the results. Many of the controllers who had reached retirement eligibility, and whose skills were desperately needed because of long-standing, nation-wide staffing shortages, headed for the door in record numbers.
But let’s go back for a moment to that bit about removing controllers and their input from modernization programs. One of those programs was the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) program. ERAM is the replacement for the antiquated Host system. Removing controllers from the development of the equipment they must use to keep Airplane A from smacking into Airplane B at 37,000 feet and a closure speed in excess of 1,000 m.p.h. is a bit like designing the cockpit of a modern jetliner without any pilot input. It’s as if engineers decided what customer-drivers want in a car without ever asking them. It’s the equivalent of using a chimpanzee to test the ergonomics and comfort of a recliner intended for a football-watching, beer-swilling couch potato. In other words, it’s stupid not only in practice, but even intuitively. You just know it’s wrong without even thinking about it.
The inevitable, entirely predictable, totally expected result of such stupidity? We found out last week in testimony before Congress. ERAM is now four years behind schedule and $330 million over budget.
That $330 million cost overrun, by the way, is probably much more than what Ms. Blakey saved in freezing controller pay and enticing badly needed controllers to head for the golf course. And it’s probably just a fraction of what Ms. Blakey’s war on controllers has cost the airlines, their passengers, and their passengers’ employers in delays, wasted fuel, lost time, and lost productivity. That figure very likely runs into the tens of billions.
And those pesky controllers who Marion Blakey didn’t want anywhere near ERAM development? They’ve been called in by the current Administrator and management team to try to salvage the mess that Ms. Blakey’s and Congressman Mica’s inept, vindictive, childish, stupid decisions wrought. Unfortunately, controllers have been brought into the tail end of the process, and much of what was previously developed is in desperate need of redevelopment. Meanwhile, current FAA management struggles to correct the horrendous mistakes of the past, rebuild the shattered relations with their controller workforce, and put back on track the derailed development of the technologies desperately needed to bring about modernization of this nation’s vital aviation infrastructure.
$333 million over budget and four years behind schedule.
Stupid is awfully hard to fix.