Davis questions safety of FAA telecom program

A House committee chairman is calling on the Transportation Department to develop a new transition plan for a Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications program and to address safety concerns associated with the project.

A May 25 letter from House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) to DOT Secretary Norman Mineta directly questions the program’s safety, marking the first time the government has raised the issue about the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program. Davis cited a recent April DOT inspector general report, which recommended that the FAA reconsider continuing the program.

“I am sure you will agree that any outage in the Air Traffic Control system poses potentially dire safety risks,” Davis wrote. “Based on the discussion of the O’Hare outage and the other findings in the [IG] report, I am concerned about the reliability, security and safety of the FTI system as it is presently being implemented.”

He emphasized the gravity of ensuring that the FAA complies with the IG’s recommendations before proceeding with the transition.

The April report stated that the FTI program is behind schedule and not living up to expectations, and the IG advised FAA’s program office to develop a new schedule for the FTI program and reduce risks to air traffic control.

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.

Separately, federal auditors have announced that they will conduct another review of the FTI program, in response to requests from other lawmakers and DOT officials.

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.

DOT IG spokesman David Barnes said his office had not heard from Davis before announcing the new audit. However, the assessment will address the urgency of the situation.

The IG took action because the FAA told auditors that a number of the recommended fixes would be complete by June 30, and that FAA would take measures to ensure FAA regions and the existing service provider are part of the transition planning as early as April 28.

“Therefore, it was imperative that we follow-up with FAA at this time to ensure the agency is meeting the intent of our recommendations,” Barnes said last week.

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