Harris rapped for FTI failures

Harris accused of trying to duck responsibility for problems

A configuration problem with a new Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications system that caused dozens of delayed departures at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport late last month has raised doubts about the abilities of the contractors installing the system.

Two voice lines linking a radar facility in Elgin, Ill., to the O’Hare tower — one of them a backup line — began delivering only intermittent connections on the morning of July 27. The lines were functioning on a new system called the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure service. The FAA awarded the FTI contract to Harris in July 2002.

Harris officials said scheduled maintenance to update the FTI software disturbed the terminal switch. The FAA chose to wait until early the next morning to repair the system to avoid further disruption to the airport.

FAA union officials, speaking on behalf of technicians who were onsite, blame the mishap on contractor error.

“From [the technicians’] perspective, this was an entirely avoidable problem. They are continuing to have problems now that are related to the same event,” said Luke Drake, assistant regional vice president of Professional Airways Systems Specialists in the area covering O’Hare.

He said the Harris contractor who was doing the upgrade failed to restore the software settings to their original configuration afterward.

Such lapses from Harris are common in his region, Drake said. Harris generally requires proof that its equipment is responsible for an outage before responding to it, he said.

Last fall, a radar outage occurred at O’Hare during a switchover to FTI.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) union says the unsatisfactory contractor performance stems partly from the demands of Harris officials.

“It is Harris’ responsibility to respond to these outages,” but Harris doesn’t have the experienced technicians it needs to implement the new system while maintaining the old one, said Troy Swanberg, the local president of NATCA Engineers and Architects for the Great Lakes region. “Harris, at a national level, has made unrealistic commitments to the FAA for the FTI program,” he added.

John O’Sullivan, Harris’ vice president for the FTI program, said the company is determined to do the job right.

“The FTI team has been both responsive and responsible with regard to any technical issue,” he said. Harris and the FAA have “developed a set of protocols and procedures to prevent this specific problem from happening again.”

As of late last week, FAA officials were still investigating the recent O’Hare incident. FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said there is no ongoing effect on air traffic operations.

Four senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote July 18 to Maria Cino, acting Transportation Secretary, to say that they are concerned and are watching the FAA’s progress.

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