FAA telecom effort lags

The Federal Aviation Administration’s initiative to replace the systems that let air traffic controllers communicate with pilots is unlikely to finish on time or on budget by December 2007, according to the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

The project, called the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program, was supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one system operated by Harris.

However, the department’s acting IG, Todd Zinser, testified last week before a Senate committee that his department has determined FTI is “a high-risk program, with a life cycle cost estimate of $2.4 billion through 2017 — five years longer than originally planned.” The conclusion is in a draft report recently issued to the FAA, he said.

Zinser added that out of some 16 key air traffic control projects, only FTI threatens to incur cost growth. Unless the FAA accelerates the switchover to FTI service and the cutoff of old circuits substantially — by almost 10 times the rate achieved in fiscal 2005 — FTI will not yield the planned $102 million cost savings for fiscal 2006, he said.

Zinser shared details of the draft IG report in testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee.

In general, he attributed FTI’s failures to poor contract management and lack of planning on the FAA’s part for the past four years.

Because the FAA pays Harris for incremental installations of hardware and not for successful service activation, the program has not yielded the benefits promised, the IG said. He stated that the terms of the original contract did not assign Harris specific due dates.

The FAA awarded the FTI contract to Harris in July 2002. The agency is still paying MCI, now known as Verizon Business, as much as $604 million for use of the old system while Harris builds and implements the new one.

The IG expects to issue a final report that will incorporate the FAA’s responses to the draft by the end of spring, according to spokesman David Barnes.

Telecom experts are calling FTI a nightmare scenario that is an example for other agencies of what not to do during transitions.

“The government went on the record projecting cost savings that have not been realized. The take-away lesson here is don’t make promises you can’t keep,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “The business case was justified on a transition schedule that was clearly far off of the mark.”

FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones acknowledged some slippage in 2005, but said the agency has made tremendous progress on the highly complex project, which involves 20,000 services provided to 5,000 facilities. The FAA is evaluating the IG’s report and planning a response, she said.


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