Although the FAA has missed a near-term milestone for deploying its new en-route air traffic control system, the agency says it will still make major progress by the end of December.

The en-route automation modernization (ERAM) program has been plagued by high-profile cost and timetable overruns (see related story). ERAM is to be the backbone system at 20 en route ATC centers, and an essential precursor to many NextGen technologies.

So far ERAM is only operational at its two initial sites, Salt Lake City and Seattle. Under its revised timetable, the FAA was scheduled to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) at five more sites by the end of its fiscal year on Sept. 30. However, this goal was not met.

The FAA tells AviationWeek that it now expects to achieve IOC at six sites by the end of December. The deployment list has also changed somewhat. The earlier plan was for the next ERAM sites to be Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver and Houston. But for the December goal, FAA has added Los Angeles and Oakland to the list, and removed Houston.

A government website that tracks federal projects had already classified the FY2011 goal as high-risk, and the FAA admitted in August that achieving the Sept. 30 target would be more challenging thanks to the agency’s temporary shutdown in July caused by congressional inaction on reauthorization legislation.

The FAA has rebaselined ERAM to be deployed at all 20 sites by the end of 2014, which would represent a four-year delay from the original schedule. However, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Inspector General believes the end date will slip to 2016. The FAA estimates a $330 million cost overrun, but the IG says this figure could balloon to as much as $500 million.

In congressional testimony on Oct. 5, the IG once again slammed FAA for mismanaging the ERAM program. Early in the program, FAA and contractor Lockheed Martin “significantly underestimated the complexity in fielding ERAM,” and “ignored early warning signs of trouble during initial site deployment,” the IG says.

While the FAA has made improvements in this area, the IG says “problems with ERAM are directly traceable to weaknesses in program management and contract oversight.”

Software-related problems force controllers to use “a large number of procedural workarounds” in ERAM, says the IG. This would be a major concern at more complex ATC centers such as Chicago and Los Angeles, where controllers do not have time “to use workarounds to compensate for ERAM’s deficiencies.”

The FAA says ERAM has been operational at its first two sites since late last year in what it describes as an operational suitability demonstration phase. The system was declared “in-service” in March this year.

Lawmakers have also been critical of FAA’s efforts on ERAM. In language accompanying its proposed FAA budget for FY2012, the House Appropriations Committee says that given ERAM’s problems, it “does not view the current projected cost and schedule for the program as being realistic.”

Fiscal 2012 will be “a pivotal year” for ERAM, the Committee says. “Absent real progress towards establishing true 24 hour, seven-day operations, in which controllers can safely rely on ERAM to separate aircraft with a system that provides the core functionalities expected of this multi-billion dollar effort, the Committee will be left with no choice but to recommend suspending the program or denying future funding to this effort.”