FAA telecom program under scrutiny again

Federal auditors have announced they will conduct another investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration’s troubled telecommunications project, in response to requests from lawmakers and Transportation Department officials.

In an April report, the DOT inspector general recommended that the FAA reconsider continuing the program because it is behind schedule and not living up to expectations. The report directed the FAA’s program office to develop a new schedule for the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program and reduce risks to air traffic control.

Beginning next week, the follow-up investigation will check the FAA’s new plan and ensure that the project is not interfering with air traffic control safety.

The April audit did not focus on safety concerns or complaints about the FTI architecture. However, the report did note one particular safety incident. Last fall, a radar outage at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago occurred during a switchover to FTI.

The loss of radar operations happened when Harris subcontractors attempted to shift phone circuits carrying radar data to FTI circuits. No backup system 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.

To avoid a similar episode, the FAA must validate requirements with regional officials before transitioning services from older networks to FTI, according to the April IG report.

Government sources said the FAA must stop certain activation activities until the program office and regional sites validate the requirements. However, the contractor, Harris, can proceed to deliver equipment as previously planned.

Last month, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said the program office does not have to halt transitioning to FTI services. “The FAA has an extensive pipeline of validated service requirements to put into the provisioning process, and so there is no need to stop the transition to perform service validation,” she said.

An IG letter to FAA, dated May 26 states, “Both Congress and the Department have expressed interest in FAA’s progress in implementing the corrective actions called for in our report.”

The objectives of this second audit are to “assess FAA’s progress in developing an effective transition plan and realistic master schedule” and determine if FAA is “mitigating risks to air traffic control operations by coordinating activities and validating site-specific requirements before activating FTI service and disconnecting existing telecommunications service,” according to the letter.

FTI’s purpose is to replace existing systems that let air traffic controllers communicate with pilots. It is supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one operated by Harris. The FAA had planned to complete the consolidation by December 2007.

But the program, which the IG has designated as high risk, will likely miss its deadline and fail to deliver the anticipated cost savings, the April audit states. FTI is more likely to be completed by November 2009, according to the report, which also states that a projected $102 million in cost savings for fiscal 2006 will not materialize unless FAA managers accelerate the transition to the new system almost tenfold.

The FAA awarded a performance-based contract for the project to Harris in July 2002. The agency is still paying MCI, now known as Verizon Business, to use an older system while Harris builds and installs the new one. The FAA saves money only when the agency disconnects its older circuits, which it has been slow to do, the April IG report notes.


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