FAA telecom overhaul knocks out radar

A radar outage this week at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago was a result of the Federal Aviation Administration’s transition to a new telecommunications provider, FAA technicians said today.

The disruption marks the latest kink in the FAA’s costly, delayed telecommunications overhaul, known as the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program.

In April, the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General announced it would audit the FTI program to determine if the changeover would succeed because of revised cost and schedule baselines. Other federal auditors and outside consultants have also recently faulted the FAA for poor FTI program management.

This is the first time flight safety issues have been announced.

According to officials at FAA employee union Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), a radar outage began at O’Hare’s Terminal Radar Control Facility (TRACON) on Sunday and lasted until Monday, causing flight delays of up to 40 minutes.

“PASS calls on the FAA administrator to stop this disastrous transition until the IG issues its recommendations and the program can be reevaluated,” PASS National President Tom Brantley stated today.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program was supposed to save money by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one system operated by Harris. In July 2002, the FAA awarded the company a contract for the 15-year project that could ultimately be worth billions of dollars.

Before FTI, MCI had been supplying some telecom services through the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System (LINCS). It links 5,000 locations and carries more than 20,000 connections, enabling air traffic controllers to communicate with one another and with pilots. It transmits radar, weather and other data.

In February 2002, the FAA awarded MCI a follow-on contract to smooth the transition to FTI.

To date, the FTI program has switched 16 percent of its sites to the new system.

PASS officials said the loss of radar operations this week occurred when Harris subcontractors attempted to transition phone circuits that carry radar data from their current circuits to FTI.

The circuits failed and there was no backup, since the FAA dispensed of that requirement in order to speed up FTI site acceptance, PASS officials added.

“This is a direct result of the FAA being more concerned with declaring success rather than achieving it,” Brantley stated. “Pretending things are okay can’t continue when it impacts the safety and capacity of the national airspace system.”

MCI officials said the company was not working on the telecom system at the time of the radar disturbances.

“The problems were not related to MCI service. MCI has continued to exceed service levels to the FAA for the past 13 years,” MCI spokeswoman Stefanie Scott said today.

FAA officials said they are still investigating the Chicago incident.

“As the agency completes the analysis, we will determine the appropriate mitigation steps to eliminate reoccurrence,” FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. “Safety is always a priority for us.”

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