Next Generation Air Transportation System:

FAA and NASA Have Improved Human Factors Research Coordination, but Stronger Leadership Needed

GAO-10-824: Published: Aug 6, 2010. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 2010.

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To address challenges to the aviation industry's economic health and safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is collaborating with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other federal partners to plan and implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). NextGen will transform the current radar-based air traffic control system into a satellite-based system. Pilot and air traffic controller roles and responsibilities are expected to become more automated, thereby requiring an understanding of human factors, which studies how humans' abilities, characteristics, and limitations interact with the design of the equipment they use, environments in which they function, and jobs they perform. FAA and NASA are tasked with incorporating human factors issues into NextGen. As requested, this report discusses the extent to which FAA's and NASA's human factors research (1) is coordinated and (2) supports NextGen. To address these issues, GAO reviewed coordination mechanisms and planning documents and synthesized the views of nine aviation human factors experts.

While FAA and NASA officials are coordinating their NextGen human factors research efforts in a variety of ways, they lack a cross-agency human factors plan for coordination. FAA and NASA have participated in research advisory committees and interagency research transition teams, signed interagency agreements, and held cross-agency meetings and conferences focused on human factors issues. FAA also created a human factors portfolio to identify and address priority human factors issues but not a cross-agency human factors coordination research plan in cooperation with NASA, as previously recommended by FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO)--an interagency organization responsible for planning NextGen. As a result, FAA has not established an agreed-upon set of initial focus areas for research that identifies and capitalizes on past and current research and establishes focus areas for human factors research and development, among other things. The experts GAO contacted generally agreed that FAA's and NASA's human factors research efforts adequately support NextGen, but made several suggestions, including enhancing human factors research leadership, for further incorporating human factors issues into NextGen systems. FAA and NASA have undertaken a variety of human factors efforts to support NextGen, including, among other things, creating planning documents detailing how human factors research will be incorporated into NextGen and dedicating financial resources specifically to NextGen human factors research. While the human factors experts GAO interviewed stated that these efforts support NextGen, a majority offered the following suggestions for further integrating human factors issues into NextGen: (1) Better ensure that human factors issues are fully integrated throughout the development of NextGen systems. FAA did not do this in the development of past systems, a fact that led to schedule slippages and cost increases. (2) Improve collaboration of human factors efforts within FAA departments. (3) Establish strong leadership. A 2008 National Academy of Public Administration's report identified leadership as the single most important element of success for large-scale systems integration efforts like NextGen. FAA has not prioritized consistently staffing the top two human factors positions. Specifically, the position of the Chief Systems Engineer for Human Factors (now referred to as the human factors integration lead) has been vacant since January 2010. Moreover, FAA did not have a permanent program director of its Human Factors Research and Engineering Group from January 2009 until June 2010. These two positions currently lack the authority to ensure that human factors issues are addressed early and throughout the NextGen system development process to prevent the need to redesign these systems after implementation, which can cause delays and add costs. As a result, FAA may lack consistent leadership with the sufficient authority to not only prioritize human factors issues but ensure that human factors issues are addressed throughout NextGen. FAA should (1) create a coordination plan and (2) give priority to filling vacant leadership positions and provide the positions with authority for prioritizing human factors. FAA agreed to consider the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, GAO found that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were coordinating their Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) human factors in a variety of ways but lacked a cross-agency plan for coordination. FAA and NASA participated in research advisory committees and interagency research transition teams, signed interagency agreements, and held cross-agency meetings and conferences focused on human factors issues. FAA also created a human factors portfolio to identify and address priority human factors issues but not a cross-agency human factors coordination research plan in cooperation with NASA, as previously recommended by FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO)--an interagency organization responsible for planning NextGen. As a result, FAA had not established an agreed-upon set of initial focus areas for research that identifies and capitalizes on past and current research and establishes focus areas for human factors research and development. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to create a cross-agency human factors coordination plan in cooperation with NASA that establishes an agreed-upon set of initial focus areas for research, inventories existing facilities for research, and capitalizes on past and current research of all NextGen issues. On February 28, 2011, FAA and NASA released a document titled, "Next Generation Air Transportation System Human Factors Research Coordination Plan" which fully implements GAO's recommendation. The agencies in announcing the plan said it was in response to the GAO recommendation. The plan identifies initial focus areas of mutual interest to both agencies, describes the Human Factors Portfolio, which was developed to leverage past and current human factors research, describes the Research Facilities Database, which is an inventory of existing facilities for human factors research, and capitalizes on past and current research. The human factors coordination plan formalizes the current coordination process between FAA and NASA, begins an annual coordination process between the two agencies to review planned research efforts, identify gaps, monitor and evaluate progress, and report results. FAA states that the coordination process leverages GAO's recommended best practices to help enhance and sustain collaboration among federal agencies. By developing a Human Factors Coordination Plan, FAA and NASA have better ensured that human factors considerations are incorporated into NextGen implementation, which will then better ensure that controllers, pilots, and other aviation system users operate NextGen in a safe and efficient manner.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to create a cross-agency human factors coordination plan in cooperation with NASA, as the JPDO has previously recommended, that establishes an agreed-upon set of initial focus areas for research, inventories existing facilities for research, and capitalizes on past and current research of all NextGen issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Office of the Secretary

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO reported that FAA and NASA have pursued a wide range of efforts to incorporate human factors research and development into NextGen. However, GAO found FAA had not prioritized consistently staffing the top two human factors positions. Specifically, the position of the Chief Systems Engineer for Human Factors (now referred to as the human factors integration lead) had been vacant since January 2010. Moreover, FAA did not have a permanent program director of its Human Factors Research and Engineering Group from January 2009 until June 2010. These two positions lacked the authority to ensure that human factors issues are addressed early and throughout the NextGen system development process to prevent the need to redesign these systems after implementation, which can cause delays and add costs. As a result, FAA lacked consistent leadership with the sufficient authority to not only prioritize human factors issues but ensure that human factors issues are addressed throughout NextGen. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to assign a high priority to filling the vacancy of human factors integration lead and structure that position and the program director of the Human Factors Research and Engineering Group (HFREG) position in a manner that provides the authority to ensure that human factors research and development is coordinated, considered, and prioritized in all phases of NextGen development. In October 2010 FAA filled the human factors integration lead vacancy. According to FAA, the integration lead manages the input of stakeholders across the agency involved in NextGen programs to address the integration of systems and capabilities from a human factors perspective. In addition, the position is responsible for coordinating the input from internal stakeholders such as NASA and MITRE. The Integration Lead along with the program director of HFREG are responsible for the discussion, planning and coordination necessary to ensure that human factors is adequately addressed in all phases of NextGen system development. FAA stated that in coordination with other agency and external elements, the two human factors positions work together to ensure that human factors research and development is coordinated, considered and prioritized in all phases of NextGen development. As a result, FAA has more consistent leadership and better assurance that human factor issues are being taken into account throughout NextGen.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to assign a high priority to filling the vacancy of human factors integration lead and structure that position and the program director of Human Factors Research and Engineering Group (HFREG) position in a manner that provides the authority to ensure that human factors research and development is coordinated, considered, and prioritized in all phases of NextGen development.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Office of the Secretary

 

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