Alaska glitches leave FAA in a fix

The Federal Aviation Administration says it has moved swiftly to correct software glitches discovered recently in a new air safety system in Alaska, but members of an air traffic technicians union contend that the agency is rushing a program not yet safe for air travel.

The FAA's Capstone program experienced two software problems in the Anchorage Air Route Traffic Control Center within a 24-hour period on Jan. 19 and 20. Capstone is a trial program in which aircraft in and around Bethel, Alaska, use satellite-based technology to transmit their position data to air traffic controllers in Anchorage. The program is useful because the area has little radar coverage and is plagued with severe weather and dangerous flying conditions.

During the incidents, an aircraft image appeared on the wrong air traffic controller's screen, said Ron Rahrig, western region vice president for the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union representing technicians that install, certify and maintain systems.

"We think the FAA is rushing software up there that hasn't been checked out, which has the potential for disaster," said Rahrig, whose union, along with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, called for the FAA to take Capstone offline for now. "When all the bugs get worked out, I think Capstone will be really beneficial to the pilots and controllers in Alaska."

The FAA and contractor Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management, which developed the software for the Anchorage controllers' workstations, developed a patch and installed it on Jan. 22, with no recurrences of the problem so far, said Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman. The issues were handled immediately and did not create a safety problem, she said.

The FAA's three-year program was tested extensively at the FAA's technical center in Atlantic City, N.J., before it was installed in Alaska, Jones said. Capstone began operating on Dec. 31, 2000.

Industry and aviation representatives stressed that Capstone is a developmental program and that the potential benefits to Alaska and the rest of the United States make the program worthwhile.

"It's normal when new systems are fielded to have some problems," said Sue Corcoran, vice president of North American programs for Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management. "That said, we would never ship a system with serious problems."

Because Capstone is a three-year trial and is only in an initial phase, Corcoran said she was not alarmed by the glitches.

Although the controllers' union initially was concerned by the problems, it has reached agreement with the FAA on how to field the Capstone program incrementally to minimize risk, said Ruth Marlin, union executive vice president.

"FAA has responded to our concerns, and we're satisfied with their response," she said.

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