House aviation chairman endorses FAA telecom funding

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee wants to stick with a major Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications program that is behind schedule, not fulfilling expectations and raising safety concerns among other lawmakers.

In anticipation of the House Appropriations Committee’s vote on the president’s fiscal 2007 budget, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) wrote identical letters in support of the program to the leaders of the Appropriations Committee and the Committee's Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, and District of Columbia Subcommittee.

An April report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general recommends that the FAA reconsider pursuing the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program, which affects how air traffic controllers and pilots communicate.

This week, the IG’s office began a new assessment to evaluate the FAA’s progress in drafting a new program schedule, cost/benefit analysis and transition plan. The audit will also check to ensure that the project is not interfering with air traffic control safety.

In his letter, Mica wrote, “As you prepare to mark up [the bill], I wanted to raise some important issues regarding the FTI program. The successful implementation is critical to creating a viable communications system for our national aviation network.”

He added that the FAA and its contractor, Harris, have assured him that the IG’s concerns are being adequately addressed.

A Mica staffer said the lawmaker wrote the letter because of speculation that an Appropriations Committee member was considering an amendment that would have affected the FTI program.

“I understand that there may be efforts in the full committee to delay or create barriers to complete implementation of the FTI program,” Mica wrote. “I strongly urge you to resist such efforts and allow this important program to realize its full benefits to the flying public and to the nation’s taxpayers.”

Ultimately, no amendment was introduced. An Appropriations Committee staffer confirmed that the FTI program was funded at the level of the president’s request of $28 million.

FTI’s purpose is to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into a single one operated by Harris.

The April IG report stated that the program, which it has designated as high risk, will likely miss its December 2007 deadline and fail to deliver the projected $102 million in cost savings in fiscal 2006 unless FAA managers accelerate the transition to the new system almost tenfold.

The FAA awarded the contract 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.

A Mica staffer said Verizon has been lobbying lawmakers to stop FTI, but after talking to all the stakeholders, Mica felt the program should proceed.

“I think the chairman is comfortable with some of the changes that have been implemented. Clearly, the program needs to be watched carefully,” said Jim Coon, a spokesman for Mica. “We have been doing our due diligence with respect to this program, and therefore, the chairman sent that letter to the appropriators.”

Meanwhile, on May 25, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the Government Reform Committee’s chairman, sent a letter to DOT Secretary Norman Mineta questioning FTI’s safety.

“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.”

Last fall, a radar outage at Chicago O’Hare International Airport occurred during a switchover to FTI.

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 this means the FAA must stop certain activation activities until the program office and regional sites validate the requirements.

Late last week, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said the program office does not have to halt activation.

"The FAA has not stopped transitioning to FTI services because there is an extensive set of service requirements that have been validated with regional officials,” she said. “As part of our standard process, meetings are held on a regular basis with regional officials to validate the service requirements before they are put into the provisioning process for transition to FTI.”

Jones added that DOT and the FAA have always tested FTI services before deploying them to mitigate risks. Early in the program, an independent assessment was conducted to determine that FTI’s services were safe.

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