IG: FAA telecom program at risk

Contrary to assurances, the Federal Aviation Administration’s project to replace systems that let air traffic controllers communicate with pilots is unlikely to be completed by the December 2007 deadline, according to the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program was supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one system operated by Harris.

“In a recently issued draft report to FAA, we concluded that FTI is a high-risk program — with a life cycle cost estimate of $2.4 billion through 2017 — five years longer than originally planned," said Todd Zinser, DOT’s acting IG. He spoke March 28 before the Senate Committee’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation.

Zinser added, that out of about 16 key air traffic control projects, only FTI threatens to become more costly.

Unless the FAA accelerates its transition to FTI service and disconnection from legacy circuits substantially — almost tenfold more than fiscal 2005 — FTI will not yield the planned $102 million cost savings for fiscal 2006.

In January, FAA officials said they still planned to complete the FTI transition by December 2007.

Zinser shared details of the draft IG report in his testimony at a hearing before the subcommittee on the FAA’s fiscal 2007 budget request.

In general, he attributed FTI’s problems to poor contract management and planning within the FAA.

The IG said that because the FAA pays Harris for incremental installations of hardware and not for successful service implementation, the program has not yielded the benefits promised.

“FTI is not likely to be completed on time because FAA has not developed a detailed, realistic master schedule for all critical steps, including identifying when each service will be accepted, when services will be cut over to FTI, and when existing services will be disconnected,” Zinser said. “Further, until FAA develops a realistic master schedule, it will be difficult to obtain a binding commitment from the FTI contractor to complete the transition by December 2007.”

The FAA awarded the FTI contract to Harris in 2002. Before FTI, MCI supplied some telecom services through the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System.

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.

“Because the primary purpose of the FTI program is to lower operating costs, which depend on deploying the system on schedule, expected benefits from reducing operating costs are eroding,” Zinser said. “For example, FAA did not realize $32.6 million in reduced operating costs in [fiscal] 2005 that it expected due to the limited progress made in disconnecting legacy circuits.”

Today, DOT IG spokesman David Barnes said the IG expects to issue a final report by the end of spring, after incorporating the FAA’s responses to the draft.

Telecom experts say FTI should teach other government agencies what to avoid during transitions.

“The government went on the record projecting cost savings that have not been realized,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “The take-away lesson here is don’t make promises you can’t keep. The business case was justified on a transition schedule that was clearly far off of the mark.”

Agencies should give rewards for meeting transition deadlines in addition to technical standards, he added.

“Because the agency is now forced to maintain two parallel contracts and two parallel networks, it’s probably worse than doing nothing at all at this point,” Suss said.

Repeated contractor visits to fix failures are also hampering the effort.

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 switch phone circuits carrying radar data to FTI circuits. No backup was available because the FAA had eliminated that requirement to speed FTI site acceptance, officials at Professional Airways Systems Specialists, an FAA employee union, said at the time.

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

At Orlando International Airport in Florida, when FAA employees tried to use backup long-range radar connected via FTI, the phone circuits failed, resulting in a 22-minute interruption in air traffic. The contractor took 20 days to fix the problem.


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