FAA comm slashed

Telecommunications managers at the Federal Aviation Administration are scrambling to cut $82 million from their fiscal 1999 budget - despite criticism that the cuts cannot be made without an impact on critical services - to make up for a funding shortfall largely brought on by a pay raise for air traffic controllers.

Steven Brown, the FAA's acting associate administrator for air traffic service, said new telecom services the agency had planned to deploy this year have been put on hold, and so have procurements for additional equipment. New services would include proj-ects to upgrade database technology and to enhance weather data received by the FAA.

Brown added that agency personnel are eliminating telecom lines that are underutilized or not used at all.

However, Brown said the cutbacks will have no impact on air safety. "There could be a change in performance, but it certainly won't affect safety," he said.

Observers inside and outside of the FAA expressed doubt that the agency could withstand the full $82 million telecom budget cut without eroding the ability to perform its mission.

Although sources were certain the agency would do nothing that would compromise safety, they pointed out that much of the department's $350 million budget request for leased telecom service already has been spent and that trimming $82 million off the remaining funds will cut extremely close to the bone. In addition, it often can take more than a month to turn off telecom service, further cutting into potential savings, sources said.

"You can't get there from here," said one FAA insider who requested anonymity. "You can't produce that much savings in FAA without starting to curtail critical services."

Mike Serbousek, executive director for FAA programs at MCI WorldCom Government Markets, said his company already has seen "a reduction in services" on its two nonadministrative networks at the agency.

"Their priority, of course, is that they are making cuts in the mission-support side first," Serbousek said. "But we are also seeing some reductions in some of the operational services."

Brown said the agency began planning the cuts about four months ago by putting together a team of FAA employees to determine how to reach the $82 million goal. He said the team came up with a list of priorities of where cuts should be made.

Steven Kalish, vice president of Computer Sciences Corp.'s Transportation Systems Center, said personnel from his company have been working with the FAA to determine where savings can be found.

The team determined that the agency should first identify and eliminate telecom circuits that are not needed, an exercise which Brown said should achieve about 20 percent to 25 percent of the required cut. He said additional savings will be gleaned through deferral of new services and equipment purchases.

Although industry sources said the cuts were needed to offset an agreement between FAA Administrator Jane Garvey and the air traffic controllers' union for an air traffic controller pay raise, Brown played down the significance of that agreement. He said other factors, such as the failure of Congress to agree to an FAA plan to levy fees against foreign aircraft entering U.S. airspace, contributed to the current situation.

Brown said telecom was targeted for cuts because its budget represents one of the larger "buckets of money" within FAA and an area where efficiency could be improved.

But other sources said the cuts being considered by FAA would not produce $82 million in savings.

Bob Woods, a former FAA official who is now president and chief operating officer at Federal Sources Inc., said it is too late in the fiscal year for the FAA to reap substantial savings by eliminating redundant telecom circuits.

"It takes about 90 days to remove a circuit, so they will only get about two months of savings for the year," Woods said. "They need to go to Congress now - while there's time - for a supplemental [appropriation], which can also take 90 days. They are between a rock and a hard place."

Industry sources said skepticism is rampant even among telecom managers within the FAA, a fact acknowledged by Brown. "Most of them are concerned about whether we can make it all the way to the goal," he said. "It's very challenging."

Brown said he has not ruled out recommending that Garvey request additional funding from Congress.

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