Air Traffic Control Modernization Issue Brief__________

Author: Patty Ornst, (202) 861-8096


What is at Issue?

In 1983, FAA announced plans to modernize its air traffic control system, which is a nationwide network of surveillance equipment, navigation aids, computers, communication systems and personnel whose mission is to safely guide aircraft throughout the US air traffic system.  The FAA is proposing to spend a total of $15.242 billion on National AirSpace System preservation and 

and modernization in Fiscal Year 2002-2006.



FAA's major modernization project, the Advanced Automation System (AAS), was originally estimated to cost $2.5 billion with a completion date of 1996. The program, however, experienced numerous delays and cost overruns, which were blamed on both FAA and the primary contractor, IBM. In 1994, FAA cancelled part of the program and split the remaining systems into three phases, and in several cases, re-bid the contracts. In September 1996, FAA recreated the portion of the AAS program known as the Terminal Advanced Automation System or TAAS and awarded the contract to Raytheon.

Currently, FAA plans to install the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) at 173 sites where controllers track planes from takeoff to cruising altitude. It replaces several different models of computers now in use and offers full color displays instead of monochrome.  It contains weather maps and can be expanded to produce even more detail about storms. 

In 2001, the FAA released its National Airspace System Operational Evolution Plan. The implementation plan outlines a ten-year capacity enhancement plan to squeeze 30 percent more traffic into the commercial aviation system while easing delays and increasing safety. Under a series of planned programs, the control of planes in the air and on the ground would gradually shift toward a satellite-based system, replacing current ground-based radar systems. Boeing has also released a comprehensive satellite navigation plan that also relies on satellites and technology that delivers more information to pilots in the cockpit.



A benchmark for modernization is 2005.  The date was identified by the White House Commission on Aviation and Security and reported in last year’s Capital Investment Plan (CIP).


Because of the significant hiring in the early 1980s to replace strikers who had been fired, many thousands of FAA’s controllers will soon become eligible to retire, leaving FAA with too few fully trained controllers;  a pending problem that GAO said has not been sufficiently addressed by the FAA.  A report released by GAO predicts that more than 50 percent of America’s air traffic controllers may leave their jobs by 2010.  The report states that the controller workforce will need to increase by about 2,000 by 2010.


Related Reports and Plans:


June 17, 2002 GAO Report “FAA Needs to Better Prepare for Impending Wave of Controller Attrition”


Capital Improvement Plan, February 2002


Operational Evolution Plan:



Related Articles:

June 18, 2002, MSNBC “Is shortage of controllers looming?”