Project Management Institute

Flight plan


NASA and the FAA team up for a project designed to improve flight safety and efficiency across the U.S.—even with an expected increase in traffic. by Kelley Hunsberger

each year more than 60 million flights take off and touch down on runways across the United States—and it's up to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure safe and efficient trips for each of those flights. The agency operates the country's air traffic control facilities, and prior to 1997, it possessed little ability to generate metrics for improving air travel.

That year, the FAA partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch the Performance Data Analysis and Reporting System (PDARS) project. Using a network of computers in air traffic control facilities across the country, PDARS continuously collects flight plan and radar track data. This information comes from systems at Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), which track and provide service to an aircraft for the majority of its journey, and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities, which track and provide service to aircraft approaching and departing between five and 50 miles of an airport.

PDARS was first brought online in Southern California in 1999, and rollout was gradual. It took six years for the system to reach the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va., USA, five air traffic control regional offices, 13 TRACONs and all 20 ARTCCs in the continental United States. The information it provides—traffic counts, times, distances and flows—is used by decision-makers at these facilities for performance measurement, route and airspace design, noise abatement analysis, support for search and rescue, and training.

Setting Goals

PDARS was driven by the accident-reduction goals of NASA's Aviation Safety Program and by the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993. Under that act, all government agencies, including the FAA, are required to report on public service and demonstrate proof of improvement.

The interests of NASA and the FAA were a natural fit for the project, according to Richard Nehl, PDARS program manager at the FAA, Washington, D.C., USA. The project combined the FAA's need for system performance and safety metrics with NASA's interest in developing technologies for examining and improving system safety. Each organization had operational objectives, but the bottom line was improving services offered to the public by reducing flight time, delays and costs.

Through PDARS, the FAA created a unified method for monitoring many aspects of an air traffic control facility's performance by:

  • Collecting the most accurate data available from en route and terminal air traffic control facilities
  • Processing data locally and generating more than 100 daily reports that are distributed to the facilities
  • Computing quantitative operational performance measures relating to safety, delay, flexibility, predictability and user accessibility on a regular basis
  • Conducting operational problem identification and analyses by local, regional and national air traffic subject experts
  • Providing access to design and simulation tools for “what-if” analyses and identification and emulation of system improvement options
  • Archiving performance statistics for use in research development, planning studies and trend monitoring analysis.

NASA's ambitions for PDARS were primarily focused on safety. It was just one piece of the agency's Aviation System Monitoring and Modeling project, which worked to “enable proactive management of safety risk as a strategy for improving safety,” says Irving Statler, Ph.D., PDARS program manager at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., USA. “NASA's fundamental safety concern was to reduce the probability of an accident despite the projected increase in air traffic. At the air traffic control facility level, PDARS enabled the manager to monitor the performance of his or her facility continuously and identify potential hazardous situations for mitigation. At the system level, PDARS enabled the sharing of information among facilities for collaborative decision-making.”

On Board

The PDARS team took a stakeholder-driven approach to the project. Air traffic control personnel, FAA facilities management, airways facilities personnel and collective bargaining units were kept informed of progress through newsletters, teleconferences and quarterly meetings. Facility representatives were invited to attend regular user meetings where they could present examples of how they used PDARS, express complaints and offer suggestions for improvements. The meetings also were used as a venue to discuss any proposed system updates. “During the eight years of NASA involvement in PDARS, the FAA convened 17 PDARS users meetings,” Dr. Statler says. “These were excellent opportunities for the users themselves to reinforce their continuing involvement. It was this obvious demonstration of support at the facility level that encouraged the FAA to continue to expand and to fund the PDARS.”



ARTCC Air Route Traffic Control Center

Located in 20 facilities across the country; controllers in ARTCCs provide service to an aircraft for the majority of its journey. Typically, ARTCCs are responsible for more than 100,000 square miles of airspace.

ATCSCC Air Traffic Control System Command Center

Located in Herndon, Va., USA, it is responsible for monitoring the flow of all air traffic within the continental United States.

FAA Federal Aviation Administration

Created in 1958, it is responsible for the safety of civil aviation.

GPRA Government Performance and Results Act of 1993

Requires all government agencies to report on public service and demonstrate proof of improvement.

NASA National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Headquartered in Washington D.C., it conducts work in aeronautics, explorations systems, science and space operations.

NATCA National Air Traffic Controllers Association

A federal sector labor union representing the more than 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers and other safety-related professionals.

PDARS Performance Data Analysis and Reporting System

A collaboration between the FAA and NASA to develop networking and analysis tools for air traffic control radar data.

TRACON Terminal Radar Approach Control Radar

Rooms located either at the base of an airport tower or in a separate location where controllers provides service to aircraft approaching and departing between five and 50 miles of an airport.

Air traffic controllers were considered key stakeholders. To keep them engaged, the project team worked closely with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). “It was essential to have the controllers and facility management support and participate in the development of PDARS,” Dr. Statler says. NASA included NATCA members in its interviews with potential PDARS users.

By collaborating closely with the project team, users at the different facilities also were able to address any concerns that came up during the project's evolution. There were fears that the FAA would use the information collected through PDARS as a basis for corrective actions, for example. “These concerns were ne-gotiated between the FAA and NATCA, and a clause was added to the existing contract under which controllers are enabled to participate in the development and utilization of PDARS,” Dr. Statler says. This clause limited the use of PDARS data to measuring the FAA's performance under the GPRA and for facility support and improvement.


Hitting Turbulence

To ensure project success, the team took an iterative approach to development. This approach—“build a little, test a little, and use”—allowed new features to quickly reach the users who could easily take advantage of them. Doing this helped curb skepticism about the necessity or capability of PDARS.

“Probably one of the biggest challenges was convincing people that it was all right to have a computer following them around, recording everything they do,” Mr. Nehl says. By initiating the project in facilities with forward-thinkers willing to participate in PDARS, the team was able to gain allies and build a reputation. “It just kind of snowballs,” he says.

Other issues included:

  • Providing a wide area network secure enough to satisfy the FAA and users
  • Meeting all informational needs while encouraging each facility to use PDARS to explore for new information
  • Keeping all facilities involved and interested in evolving development as informational needs changed and users learned more about PDARS capabilities.

NASA developed a secure wide area network that met all of the security concerns of the project stakeholders and managed the network until complete control of PDARS was turned over to the FAA at the end of fiscal year 2005. In addition, the NASA Ames Research Center led the user-needs analysis studies that helped dictate the project's informational needs. “Politically, project management relied on tact and diplomacy to engage the facilities and the unions in the experiment and in the continuing evolution of the capabilities of PDARS,” Dr. Statler says.

Defining Roles

During the project's early stages, the FAA, NASA and primary contractor, ATAC Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., USA, clearly defined each participant's role:

FAA Program management and oversight

NASA User-needs studies, advanced networking, and exploration of new data integration and data-mining technologies

ATAC Corp. Requirements analysis, architecture development, design implementation, testing, deployment, operation and user support

PDARS Users Use the system and generate new ideas for improving it.

This breakdown of duties “ensured that the program always focused on user needs,” says Wim den Braven of ATAC Corp. “As a result, the program is highly valued by the users.”

Shifting Priorities

In 2003, the PDARS project team received the Administrator's Award at the Turning Goals into Reality Conference, held by NASA's Office of Aerospace Technology. The award recognizes projects that have made significant contributions to NASA's aeronautics objectives.

After completing its Aviation System Monitoring and Modeling project, NASA turned over complete control of PDARS to the FAA. At that time, there were more than 200 FAA users and over 400 reports being generated on a daily basis. “As the project evolved, it was clear that it could support both the informational needs of the individual [air traffic control] facilities, as well as the overall FAA performance objectives,” says Wim den Braven, program manager for ATAC Corp., Sunnyvale, Calif., USA, the project's primary contractor.

PDARS provides the FAA with the solid metrics it was seeking, but even with that success, the project isn't finished. “From our point of view, there is not necessarily an end,” Mr. Nehl says. As the system grows, more funding will be designated toward maintaining it. “When we are done building this thing we are going to continue using it. It's not a matter of ‘I've finished digging the tunnel, now I'm going home.’” PM

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