FAA would reduce spending on telecom system

The proposed fiscal 2007 budget would halve funding for the Federal Aviation Administration’s much-criticized project to replace the systems that let air traffic controllers communicate with pilots.

FAA officials note that the Bush administration's proposal is what was requested by the agency and is only a cut when compared to what was appropriated last year. The FAA's request is reduced because the program has entered a more operational phase.

The project, called the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program, was supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecommunications networks into one system operated by Harris. But as costs escalate and deadlines slip, the agency faces allegations of poor management, repeated contractor visits to fix failures and false performance measurements. Last year, President Bush requested $57 million. His fiscal 2007 request of $28 million represents a 50.9 percent cut.

The program has made nearly no progress in the past six months, according to officials from Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), an FAA employee union. The FAA awarded Harris a contract in July 2002 for the potentially multibillion-dollar, 15-year project. The agency is paying MCI, now Verizon Business, as much as $604 million to use the previous system operated by the company, while paying Harris to build and implement the new one.

Separately, the budget would boost funding for one of the FAA’s modernization programs. The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), a satellite navigation system, would get a 32.6 percent increase. The 2007 budget calls for $122 million, up $30 million from last year’s request of $92 million.

The $4.2 billion Global Positioning System-based WAAS will generate precise lateral and vertical coordinates to guide aircraft landing at airports in the continental United States and Alaska. That information will be especially helpful to pilots flying in bad weather.

Another problematic FAA modernization program, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), would get 40.2 percent less funding in 2007. The budget asks for $49 million, down $33 million from the fiscal 2006 request of $82 million. Yesterday, FAA officials said they expect to deploy STARS at 47 sites in fiscal 2007. It will substitute outdated, monochromatic workstation screens with multicolor monitors in air-traffic controller facilities.

Last summer, air traffic controllers said STARS experienced several interruptions at the then 18-month-old Boston Terminal Radar Approach Control facility. And federal auditors recently noted that STARS has run up $520 million in additional costs and fallen behind schedule. The program, which was scheduled to be completed in 2005, is now projected to be done in 2008.

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