FAA telecom program draws more fire

Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 2006, to reflect that MCI is now Verizon Business.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s attempt to overhaul the systems that allow air traffic controllers to communicate with pilots has made nearly no progress in the past six months, according to officials from FAA employee union Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS).

This week, PASS National President Tom Brantley said FAA reported that as of June 30, 2005, 3.4 percent, or 622, of the system’s original telecommunications circuits are now functioning on the new system. Six months later, the program had added an additional 1 percent, bringing the total to 815 operational circuits.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) was supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one system operated by Harris. The FAA awarded Harris a contract for the potentially multibillion-dollar, 15-year project in July 2002. But as costs escalate and deadlines slip, allegations of poor management, repeated contractor visits to fix failures and false performance measurements have hampered the effort.

Some FAA employees and aviation experts familiar with the project say the problems could create safety risks. FAA officials say they are confident in the integrity of the FTI network.

Before FTI, MCI supplied some telecom services through the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System (LINCS).

The agency is still paying MCI, now Verizon Business, as much as $604 million to use the old system while paying Harris to build and implement the new one.

FAA officials said earlier this week that statistics on service migration depend on FAA field employees reporting when that has occurred. The FAA’s records show that the agency has completed 1,401 service cutovers as of Dec. 31, 2005.

The FAA plans to complete the FTI transition by December 2007. But MCI’s contract ends March 2007. Agency officials may extend the MCI contract for one additional year, which the original contract allows.

“The program needs to ramp up to a level of being able to cutover approximately 1,000 services per month to achieve the planned transition end date,” FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said.

Meanwhile, the president of a major air traffic controller association has assailed the safety of the program in his blog.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr wrote that the FAA recently honored MCI for its work to restore network services in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The FAA recognized MCI for sustaining air traffic control communications under LINCS and the FAA Telecommunications Satellite System (FAATSAT), despite the devastation to parts of the Gulf Coast.

Now, the agency is discarding LINCS and FAATSAT to install FTI.

In response, Carr posted an entry on his blog, “The Main Bang,” last weekend, with the headline, “FAA Motto: If It Ain't Broke, Break It.”

“You can imagine my shock and awe at discovering that the FAA is terminating FAATSAT,” Carr wrote. “That's right, the first communications site will be decommissioned shortly and this will continue until all sites are decommissioned by June 2006. This will leave the nation’s air traffic control system in a pathetically vulnerable position. The replacement technology, the FTI, will not have the redundancy necessary to replace FAATSAT. This has already been demonstrated.”

Last fall, a radar outage at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago was the result of a backup failure that happened during the changeover. The loss of radar operations occurred when Harris subcontractors attempted to transition phone circuits carrying radar data to FTI circuits. No backup was available because the FAA had dispensed of that requirement to speed FTI site acceptance, PASS officials said at the time.

The outage began at O’Hare’s Terminal Radar Control Facility on a Sunday and lasted until Monday, causing flight delays of as long as 40 minutes.

MCI spokeswoman Stefanie Scott said repeatedly that FTI's problems are not related to MCI service. "We stand by our service record," she said. "MCI has continued to exceed the highest service levels to the FAA for the past 13 years."

Auditors at the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General are investigating the program. In a preliminary briefing, OIG officials said the FAA should develop a detailed plan and timetable for moving services to the new network, and it should consider terminating the project if the contractor cannot meet the goals.

The snapshot of the OIG's work at that point states that FTI program managers have not validated the costs and benefits and are measuring success based on equipment setup, known as "site acceptance," rather than service activation, or "service acceptance." The FAA has no way to hold Harris accountable for its performance under the contract terms, according to the OIG.

OIG officials stressed that the draft work presented in September might not all become part of the final findings and recommendations.

Carr said FAA weathered the last hurricane season, in part, because of the old telecom system’s backup capability.

“Rather than suffering an embarrassing FEMA-like black eye, the FAA, through the hard work of all its employees and the technology provided by companies like MCI, received praise and accolades for restoring air service in the region in a rapid manner,” Carr wrote in his blog. “Now it looks like we're going to rely on luck and the vagaries of Mother Nature to keep us operating in the event of a catastrophic weather event. FAA, you're doing a heck of a job!”

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