UPDATED: FAA telecom outage reported at new Atlanta tower

Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. June 14, 2006, to reflect that the outage occurred June 8, 2006, not June 9.

A telecommunications system at the new Atlanta air traffic control tower went down for four-and-a-half hours on the morning of June 8 and caused three flight delays, according to officials at the Federal Aviation Administration’s employee union, Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS).

However, officials at Harris, the contractor that installed the network, said the interruption caused no safety issues or flight delays. They blamed the outage on a maintenance interruption to the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) service.

Because data services were down, air traffic controllers had to fax flight plans between air traffic control facilities and the tower, and then handwrite information on flight strips.

Normally, such tasks are performed automatically, so that the flight strips are ready and waiting for air traffic controllers when a plane is about to take off or touch down.

“The controllers had to use grease pencils to write on these plastic flight strips,” said Dave Spero, a PASS regional vice president. “What if they made a mistake transposing information from the faxes to the flight strips?”

He likened the episode to having to use a computer without a mouse, which would force the user to relearn how to move the cursor with a keyboard.

“You can still do what you’ve got to do. It’s just a lot more difficult. In the meantime, they are controlling airplanes," Spero said today.

The outage severed communications from the Peachtree City Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility and the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center to the Atlanta tower, which opened about a month ago.

The telecom circuits had been functioning on FTI. FAA awarded the contract to Harris in July 2002.

Recently, the Transportation Department’s inspector general and lawmakers have questioned continuing the FTI program because it is behind schedule, not fulfilling expectations and raising safety concerns.

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

The loss of radar 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’s activation, PASS officials said at the time.

Regarding the Atlanta tower outage, Spero said, “A brand-new facility like that, I would think it would be performing better than anything. This is just a small sample of what’s to come.”

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