Stop the acquisitions madness at FAA

Inspector General reports are a dime a dozen in Washington, DC. As the independent watchdogs of the government’s agencies and cabinet departments, Inspectors General (IG) are responsible for investigating all nature of problems within the federal bureaucracy.  But occasionally, an IG report finds irregularities so breathtaking they rise far above waste, fraud and ineptitude.

Such is the case with the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS), a program of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intended to train new air traffic controllers.  From all angles the program fell well short of the goals.  According to two separate IG investigations, the program has failed to deliver since its inception in 2008, resulted in delays in training air traffic controllers and in the process, creating unacceptable cost overruns and safety concerns.  

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In spite of the initial objective to improve training, the facts are condemning.  A September, 2010, investigation discovered problems that existed before the ATCOTS contract was even bid. The 2008 solicitation didn’t define training requirements, failed to plan for overseeing contractor services and allowed the contract to go forward in spite of a “60- to 80-percent likelihood that training needs would not be achieved due to the limited staffing hours proposed.”

Three years later, ATCOTS was still in disarray. The December 18, 2013 IG report showed FAA still did not “assess whether the ATCOTS contract would meet its long term needs,” and that the agency, “still does not hold oversight staff accountable for conducting required semiannual evaluations,” along with four straight years of cost overruns amounting to $89 million.

Even after receiving explicit guidance in the 2010 IG report, FAA failed to put the program on track by identifying training needs and contract performance measures before extending the contract. No responsible buyer would do this and taxpayers should not accept such failings in government acquisition.

The litany of problems discovered by the IG calls into question the integrity of the acquisitions process before, during and after the contract was awarded.  The nature and number of problems beg the question of how presumably intelligent acquisition officers at FAA could not see and resolve so many problems for so many years.

The safety of the flying public is no less a concern.  A 2011 analysis of aircraft incidents by Georgia State University professor Jack Williams shows a 66 percent increase in air safety incidents attributed to air traffic control errors in the first two years of ATCOTS compared with the two years preceding the program. Professor Williams concluded, “the statistically significant increase in Operational Errors after the FAA changed its educational structure in November 2008… to ATCOTS is real and poses a threat to our air transportation system.”

As a longtime and current user of the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Services, I can attest to the talent of thousands of air traffic controllers who do an exceptional job, and understand the importance of effective training. But if the training program designed to prepare future controllers is so flawed that it cannot achieve its core objective, something is perilously wrong.  

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) and the Senate subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight she chairs have studied ATCOTS for several years.  Whether the subcommittee will take action is uncertain, but FAA has been blind to even the most clear and logical help.  Congress should direct the FAA to not exercise contract options for ATCOTS nor should FAA re-compete this failed concept of bundling training to the point of confusion and disfunction.  It should be broken out into multiple training services with clearly defined scopes and measures of merit that can be  successfully managed.

Congress must step in before we turn on the news one night and see the tragic results of a preventable air disaster.  Attention must then be turned to why ATCOTS was so wrongly conceived and executed. Nothing about this acquisition process passes the smell test and we may need more investigations to learn why.

Newton is a former Pentagon acquisition officer and test pilot.