Budget woes may ground tower effort

The Federal Aviation Administration, faced with an uncertain budget environment, is once again cutting back one of its major air traffic control modernization programs.

As part of its new strategy for Tower Automation, which involves replacing the hardware and software at select air traffic control towers, the FAA has decided to simplify the technology and deliver significantly fewer systems to the field.

While the FAA confirmed that it is rethinking the Tower program, it declined to provide details.

"The future of the program is still under discussion," an FAA spokesman said. "We are making decisions on...the best way to restructure the program."

But an industry source close to the FAA believes deeper and more damaging cuts may be in the works for the Tower program.

"My concern is that under the guise of political expediency and budgetary constraints, we might end up putting something out there that is not going to serve the agency well going into the 21st century," the source said.

The FAA is reconsidering the modernization strategy now because it anticipates "a big crunch" in fiscal 1998, said Ray Hilton, director of air traffic management at the Air Transport Association (ATA), Washington, D.C. "We know the FAA is taking a hard look at the programs,"he said.

The Tower Automation program - previously called the Tower Control Computer Complex - was originally part of the Advanced Automation System (AAS). TCCC was designed to consolidate more than a dozen different tower systems - such as weather information, environmental data and runway light controls - into one display system.

Now the FAA apparently has decided to focus on providing a Surface Movement Advisor (SMA), which will help air traffic controllers manage the flow of traffic on the ground. As part of the new focus, only a handful of related functions will be integrated into the controller display.

Earlier this month, the FAA directed Lockheed Martin Corp., the prime contractor on TCCC, to submit a proposal by mid-August that reflects the program's new focus, according to a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman.

The FAA has decided to deploy the Tower system to only the 13 busiest airports, at least initially, an aviation source said.

Under the old AAS strategy, the FAA planned to field the new system at 150 airports. That number was reduced to 70 as part of the AAS overhaul last year, when the FAA signed a new contract with Loral Corp., now part of Lockheed Martin.

The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity TCCC contract only guaranteed that one system would be delivered - due in Chicago in 1997 - which would give the FAA plenty of leeway. The FAA expected to spend about $259 million on the new TCCC contract, down from $541 million when it was part of AAS.

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