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Where FAA Sees Roses in New Telecommunications System, Controllers and Technicians Feel the Pain of Thorns - (4/9/2008)

NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS ASSOCIATION (NATCA)
PROFESSIONAL AVIATION SAFETY SPECIALISTS (PASS)

CONTACTS:   NATCA-Doug Church, 301-346-8245; PASS-Kori Blalock Keller, 202-293-7277 

WASHINGTON – Despite a rosy picture painted Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) network is unreliable, lacking suitable backups, and continues to be a source of great frustration and deep concern for the FAA technicians and air traffic controllers who must deal with the fallout of the FAA’s decision to cut corners and costs on this project and run it on the razor’s edge despite a lengthy list of failures and outages. 

As PASS pointed out on Monday, the FTI program, which is provided by Harris Corporation, has had numerous problems from the start, including insufficient training of contractors, poor planning and management, and substandard service. Furthermore, with no services to fall back on when there are problems with FTI, there is even greater risk of outages occurring repeatedly at facilities throughout the country. Because FTI transmits voice, data and radar information to controllers, any interruption puts air travelers at great risk. 

“The FAA is intent on declaring FTI a success even if it means ignoring significant issues with the program around the country,” said Mike Perrone, PASS vice president. “FTI is plagued by issues including unreliable service, contractor errors causing outages and lengthy response times by contractors and subcontractors.” Perrone cited serious outages over the past year in Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Austin, Buffalo, Little Rock, Birmingham and Memphis, “just to name a few. All have seriously and needlessly jeopardized the safety of the flying public. On Monday, PASS highlighted an issue in Augusta (Ga.) where it took over eight hours for a Harris contractor to respond to an outage.” 

A similar episode occurred last month in Memphis in which repair work could not start on an outage until the FTI contractor responsible for the equipment arrived. And Memphis Center was the site of perhaps the worst FTI-related outage, on Sept. 25, 2007. That day, a major failure left controllers without the ability to use most of their radio frequencies and some of their radar feeds. They could not make automated “handoffs” of flights to adjacent airspace sectors at other en route facilities and had to use personal cell phones just to talk to other facilities about specific flights they could not communicate with themselves. Significant flight delays occurred and the shutdown of the airspace in a multi-state radius from Memphis looked like a giant hole in the middle of the country as viewed on a map of all airborne traffic in the United States. 

The $2.4 billion FTI program was introduced by the FAA in 2002 and was originally estimated at $1.7 billion as a cost-saving measure. But as projected cost savings evaporate and service problems increase, FTI has come under intense scrutiny for poor management, escalating cost growth and the inability to set and meet realistic completion goals. It has been the subject of two back-to-back Inspector General audits and increased Congressional oversight. The IG, in fact, has found that cost savings have decreased so far by over $400 million – more than half of the FAA’s original estimated savings. 

“FTI is the poster child for the FAA’s inability to grasp the concept that reliable air traffic control equipment must trump cost savings as a priority and the way to safely modernize the system is to increase redundancy, not run it on the cheap and further advance a ‘I’ll fix it when it fails’ philosophy,” NATCA President Patrick Forrey said. “We feel the PASS bargaining unit should immediately be re-engaged on FTI, at both the facility and headquarters level. Similarly, NATCA, which has had no involvement in FTI since the FAA kicked controllers off all technical projects three years ago, should also be included, as this new system’s impact on air traffic control operations continues to grow.” 

Many controllers, Forrey added, consider FTI a downgrade from its predecessor, the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications (LINCS) system. LINCS was created in the 1990s after a series of major power losses crippled air traffic control in New York and other regions. The project created a high-availability national network of 1,200 switches and 21,000 circuits that connected 5,000 air traffic control facilities. For over a decade, this mission-critical network performed almost flawlessly with a consistent record of “five nines” reliability. FAA executives often touted it as the “gold standard” of ATC communications systems worldwide. 

In order to achieve this performance, LINCS had to place backup phone lines, switches and power systems at each major ATC facility. No terminal or en route radar facility or major tower had a single point of failure. Each had two or more physically separate and diverse points of access and transport so that the loss of communications and power due to cable cuts, line failures, natural disasters or, in the case of 9/11, terrorist attacks, would not cripple aviation and threaten passenger safety. LINCS, like all aviation systems at the time, was certified against rigid fail-safe standards.

FTI replaced all existing telecommunications networks with one that would cost less to operate. The FAA touted FTI as a new way of doing business: One that shifted more responsibility to the contractor, reduced reliance on the agency’s own technician workforce, outsourced network maintenance to a third-party vendor and slimmed down communications backup. For air traffic control, the consequences of this new business model have been particularly troubling. To reduce costs, 90 percent of 1,100 air traffic control services deemed critical under LINCS have been paired back to less than 120 under FTI. This means that in many places, crucial air-to-ground communications, flight plan and radar data and communications between facilities are now run with single points of failure because backups have been removed.


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