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OIG: FAA Remains Years Away From A Standardized Controller Scheduling Tool

Also Faces Significant Challenges Before Benefits Of Such A Tool Can Be Realized

The FAA employs over 14,000 air traffic controllers to operate 314 air traffic control facilities nationwide. As inefficient facility scheduling can lead to staffing issues and increased overtime costs, in July 2016, FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) agreed to implement a commercially available tool, Operational Planning and Scheduling (OPAS), to standardize scheduling practices at all air traffic facilities.

In 2017, the House Appropriations Committee directed OIG to review FAA’s progress in implementing a controller scheduling tool and determine whether it is benefiting air traffic managers. The audit objectives were to determine FAA’s progress in adopting and implementing a scheduling tool and identify any challenges that will need to be addressed to realize potential benefits.

The OIG found that after 2 years, FAA’s air traffic control facilities remain without a standardized scheduling tool. Upon reviewing recommendations from a joint FAA-NATCA workgroup, the Agency decided to use OPAS as a management-only tool, used by managers to create the basic watch schedule, and another system, Air Traffic Operational Management System (ATOMS), to capture the real-time work assignments of air traffic controllers. According to FAA officials, this requires the Agency to modify the scope of OPAS and develop its own daily scheduler, which has extended the project timeline.

Because of this system, the FAA remains several years away from deploying a scheduling tool, according to the OIG. The agency also faces significant challenges before it can realize the benefits of such a tool.

The audit found that in the 8 years since OPAS was procured for testing purposes at a cost of $17 million, the FAA has not established a finalized plan with the dates, system needs, potential risks, and costs of deployment. In addition, the FAA’s decision to partially implement OPAS and ATOMS increased the level of complexity, and the ATOMS scheduling capability has not been field tested. Training and deployment requirements may change over time. As a result, the FAA does not know the final cost or how long it will take to deploy a scheduling tool for the controller workforce.

The OIG made two recommendations to help FAA implement a standardized scheduling tool at its air traffic control facilities:

  • Develop an implementation plan for deploying a scheduling system for controllers that includes schedule milestones, system requirements, risk assessment and mitigation, and funding requirements.
  • Assess and quantify the expected benefits of a customized controller scheduling tool.  

FAA concurred with both recommendations, but  expressed concerns with certain aspects of the report:

  • FAA states OIG erroneously asserted that the Agency lacks a comprehensive plan for deploying the scheduling tool. As noted in the report, the Agency currently does not have a plan that lists the dates, system needs, potential risks, and costs of deploying the scheduling tool at air traffic facilities.
  • FAA disagreed with statement that the Agency has made minimal progress in implementing a standardized scheduling tool. However, ATOMS, which the Agency plans to use for developing and optimizing controller schedules ... a critical component of scheduling ... remains in the design phase with no clear timeline for implementation.
  • FAA stated that OIG has erroneously asserted that the Agency has not developed new requirements for ATOMS, noting that it had documented these requirements. However, in September 2017, FAA modified the scope of ATOMS to include a scheduling capability, and more than a year later, the Agency has not yet validated the requirements ... due to pending negotiations with NATCA ... which has impacted the project timeline.
FMI: OIG Report

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