News Releases

Murray Holds Hearing to Examine FAA Safety Shortcomings and Cost Overruns

May 10 2007

At hearing, Murray raises persistent problems with Sea-Tac Airport's runway safety technology

(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) chaired a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation to explore the FAA's troubled efforts to modernize its air traffic control system while ensuring aviation safety. Senator Murray explored her concerns that certain aspects of the modernization program are encountering cost overruns while not performing as planned. The hearing also focused on the FAA's air safety inspection function and whether the agency's inspection staff is adequately manned, trained, and deployed to address the increasing amount of aircraft maintenance being performed overseas. Administrator Marion Blakey and the Department of Transportation's Inspector General Calvin Scovel testified at the hearing.

At the hearing, Senator Murray discussed issues pertaining to Washington state's aviation community including persistent problems with Sea-Tac's runway safety technology: ASDE - X.

The following is Senator Murray's opening statement:

The Subcommittee will come to order.

I would like to welcome our witnesses this morning, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel.

Over the next eight years, it is estimated that the number of air passengers will grow by 40 percent. That's good news for our country. It's also good news for my region because we build the best airplanes in the world, and we are a gateway to our biggest trading partners in Asia.

But all those new aircraft will do little to expand our economy if we don't have a modern air traffic control system to move those planes safely and with maximum efficiency. If we fail to modernize that system -- and soon -- it will not just be a drag on the economy of my region. It will be a drag on the global economy.

Unfortunately, we are years behind in this effort. We are years behind because, just three years ago, the Bush Administration and Administrator Blakey successfully advocated a cut to our annual investment in air traffic modernization funding by more than $400 million. And the program has been funded roughly at that reduced level every year since. That represents a loss of more than $1.2 billion from the baseline we established back in 2004.

We are years behind because, well over a decade ago, the FAA's modernization effort got seriously derailed as the agency wasted billions of dollars in a failed effort known as the Advanced Automation System.

That debacle was characterized by the FAA constantly changing its requirements and throwing good money after bad through undefined open-ended contracts. Today, in 2007, we are still paying to replace systems that were slated to be fixed in the 80's and the 90's as part of that failed effort.

Back then, the FAA was not up to the task of rapidly and efficiently modernizing the system. I worry that the FAA may still not be up to the task today.

Just last month, Administrator Blakey gave a speech that included the following passage:

"It stings when I listen to criticisms about the FAA that are based on something that happened ten or twenty or thirty years ago. In the last few years, we have achieved enormous management efficiencies and at the end of FY 2006, 97 percent of our major capital projects were on time and on budget."

The Administrator has made similar statements before several House and Senate Committees.

I don't disagree with the Administrator that things have improved since the "bad old days" of the Advanced Automation System. But I do question whether it is appropriate or accurate to claim that the overwhelming majority of FAA's capital projects are progressing along just fine.

Part of my goal for this morning's hearing is to scratch under the surface of that claim. From my perspective, we still see too many examples where the FAA has:

  • signed contracts with undefined requirements;

  • encountered sizeable cost overruns that get handed right to taxpayers;

  • purchased equipment that could not provide all the functions promised; and

  • failed to produce all the operating savings promised.

I am not talking about examples from ten, twenty or thirty years ago. I am talking about examples in the last five years. I'm talking about programs that we are paying for right now. And I'm talking about programs for which the Administrator is seeking more money in 2008.

So how can we have all these procurement delays and cost overruns - but have the FAA claiming that almost all of its programs are "on time and on budget"?

The answer lies in a process known as "re-baselining." This is a process required by OMB for major procurements throughout the government. When a program appears to be exceeding its targeted costs - or failing to deliver its intended product - an agency is required to re-baseline the program. That means the agency must re-estimate the cost, the schedule and benefits, and decide if it still makes sense to move forward.

As we will hear from the Inspector General, the FAA has been required to re-baseline a significant number of programs because of substantial cost overruns and schedule slips.

Let me be clear. I do not question that the FAA did the right thing in re-baselining these programs. What I do question is whether the agency is being honest with the system users, the Congress, and taxpayers, when it establishes a new higher cost estimate, a later delivery date, or a a weaker performance goal, and then continues to proclaim proudly that the program is "on-time" and "on budget."

As the IG says in his formal testimony "this re-baselining process explains why the Wide Area Augmentation System according to the FAA's logic is still on budget, even though its costs have grown from $892 million to over $3 billion since 1998."

That's right. A program that has experience cost growth of 233 percent is still considered to be "on-budget" by the FAA. And this is yet another program that will not produce all the benefits originally promised. But that's how the Administrator can claim that 97 percent of her major capital programs are doing just fine.

Things are not all "on track" at the FAA.

Let me share of a few examples of programs the FAA has re-baselined, but still considers on-time and on-budget:

There's the Integrated Terminal Weather System - costs have grown by $10 million and the schedule has been extended by nearly 6 years. Yet the FAA Administrator says they're "on time and on budget." I think taxpayers would disagree.

Or look at the ASR-11 radars. Instead of installing 112, they've slashed it down to just 66 units and the schedule has been extended by 4 years. That doesn't sound like a programs that's "on track" to me.


Another very worrisome case of this re-baselining process has been the so-called ASDE-X program.

This program is designed to address perhaps the greatest safety threat in our current commercial aviation system - runway incursions. It is designed to ensure that aircraft operating on the ground don't collide with other planes or vehicles on the airfield.

These aren't hypothetical threats. Just this past summer, two aircraft at O'Hare missed each other by 35 feet. As the Administrator knows, improved measures to prevent runway incursions has been on the National Transportation Safety Board's "most wanted" list since 2001.

This program was re-baselined in September 2005. As part of that process, the FAA substantially changed its goals and reduced the number of airports to be served by 25 percent.

The FAA also admitted that the cost of the program had grown from roughly $500 to $550 million and that the completion date would slip from 2007 to 2011. Ever since that re-baselining took place, this program has been declared as being "on-time" and "on-budget."

In Administrator Blakey's formal testimony, she points out with pride that the FAA installed five of these systems in 2006. She fails to mention, however, that the Agency's schedule called for seven systems to be installed that year.

Today, the IG will report to us that, since that initial re-baselining, the program's costs have grown by another $100 million and the program has gotten further behind schedule. Even more disturbing, the IG will testify that, at present, the new systems are not delivering the safety benefits that were promised.

Central to the FAA's decision to pursue this program was the plan to install new software upgrades that would greatly improve the equipment's ability to warn controllers of impending collisions between aircraft operating on converging runways.

Example: SeaTac's Faulty ASDE-X

For my region of the country, the upgrades are necessary so that the equipment can perform in rainy and foggy conditions. But controllers at SeaTac Airport tell me that when it rains, they observe so many false targets and hear so many false alarms that they have to turn the system down to its most limited setting and use just 10 percent of it's capability.

It is precisely when the weather is bad that this technology is needed the most. But instead of getting the service they were promised, on foggy days, the controllers have to send out a vehicle to the end of the runway to see whether the target they see on the ASDE screen is a real aircraft, or just another false target.

Every time they have a false target or false alarm, the controllers have to fill out reports. And in just the last 15 months, they have filled out more than 480 reports, including 25 false alarms. That is more than 30 reports every month - roughly one false target or alarm for every day of operation. And many incidents go unreported because the controllers just get tired of filling out the forms.

You don't have to use that airport every week - like I do - to know that in the Pacific Northwest we get a lot of rain. Madam Administrator, it shouldn't be a surprise to the FAA that safety technologies that don't work in the rain do not provide safety in my part of the country.

Right now, the FAA is struggling to get all those functions to work. Hopefully, the FAA will succeed. But, in the meantime, the rising costs are being passed right along to the taxpayer.

That is because, once again, according to the IG, the FAA's contract with the vendor does not have all the necessary taxpayer safeguards in place. The contract has a number of undefined requirements that are allowing costs to pile up, while the system struggles to perform as promised. I am not talking about a contract from twenty years ago. I am talking about a contract that is less than two years old.

It is important to point out that these problems persist at the FAA at the same time that Congress is considering legislation to substantially alter how the FAA is funded. I view my mission as part of this reauthorization process to ensure that this Subcommittee continues to exercise appropriate oversight and budgetary control.

These ongoing procurement problems at the FAA must not escape notice. Elected officials must continue to have the opportunity to withhold or redirect funding when the agency is not performing. Back during the failed Advanced Automation System, it was this subcommittee that began withholding funds long before the FAA was prepared to recognize the extent of their failure.

Continuing budgetary oversight is essential, whether we are talking about funds that are directly appropriated or funds that are borrowed under the Administration's new proposed borrowing authority.

I want to be clear. The role of this Subcommittee is not just to cut budgets when funds are being wasted. To the contrary, in many critical aviation areas, this Subcommittee has taken the lead in funding initiatives well before the FAA has decided that they are a priority.

Let me give some examples. For three of the last six years, this Subcommittee has included funding well above the President's request to boost the number of FAA's air safety inspectors.

As the IG will testify this morning, the FAA still has a long way to go to ensure that the FAA's safety inspection force is adequately trained and deployed to deal with the growing amount of major aircraft maintenance that is being conducted oversees.

The FAA has been losing air safety inspectors to retirement at a very rapid rate. If this Subcommittee had not provided funding above the Administration's request for these inspectors, the situation would be more dire than it is today.

Similarly, the Administrator has requested funds in her 2008 budget for both the ADS-B program and the SWIM program. These are critically important technologies that are needed if we are really going to launch the next generation of air traffic modernization.

They are also two programs where this Subcommittee has provided resources before the Administration ever got around to asking for them. As a result, these programs are farther along today because the Subcommittee rejected the Administration's budget request and funded them on our own.

So I look forward to discussing with the Administrator, not just how this Subcommittee will have control to stop wasteful programs but also how this Subcommittee will have the ability, under this new funding regime, to add funds that the Agency desperately needs.

The need to modernize our air traffic control system could not be more urgent. We have lost precious time and precious dollars. But given the daunting cost and urgency of this challenge, we must not throw dollars at programs without adequate oversight or fiscal controls.

We must make sure that the taxpayer is getting what it pays for, and we have to quit saying that all programs performing well when they are not. I look forward to working with the Administrator to make air traffic control modernization a near-term reality, and I know that my ranking member Senator Bond does as well.