GAO report details air traffic control host computer failings

The Federal Aviation Administration's critical but antiquated host computer system is not operating as needed, potentially threatening air traffic services, and will be challenging to fix, according to the General Accounting Office.

HCS, which was installed by IBM Corp. at 20 en route centers, helps air traffic controllers manage aircraft flying over the country and during approaches to some airports. The system is important because, among other things, it processes radar surveillance data and flight plans, and it provides alerts of potential conflicts.

In its May 1 letter to Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), the GAO said that for the past three years the system has not been operating satisfactorily due to unscheduled outages. Of the 29 unscheduled outages in 1997, 34.5 percent were because of software, 27.6 percent were because of hardware and 37.9 percent were blamed on other reasons such as weather, according to GAO.

These problems are likely only to get worse since there is a shortage of critical spare system parts. For example, prime HCS contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. said last year it could not guarantee the availability of spare parts for the main processor, which is expected to reach its end-of-service date by Sept. 30. The FAA is responsible for furnishing spare parts once the end-of-service date is reached.

Meanwhile, the Year 2000 computer problem still poses a serious threat because the processor's microcode—- low-level machine instructions—- likely will not survive the date change after Dec. 31, 1999, according to IBM. "If there are date dependencies in the processor's microcode, HCS could malfunction or shut down, thereby forcing FAA to operate with the degraded flight processing capabilities provided by its back-up system," GAO said.

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