Telecom upgrade causes O'Hare delays

A configuration problem with a new Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications system caused dozens of delayed departures at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport late last week.

Two voice lines that link the Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility in Elgin, Ill., to the O’Hare tower experienced intermittent connectivity July 27, beginning 11:05 Central Daylight Time. The lines – one of which was a backup – are usually used to coordinate simultaneous aircraft approaches.

Because communication was unreliable, FAA officials decided to abandon the technology and switch to an alternate procedure: staggered approaches.

FAA officials conducted staggered approaches for 17 hours and 45 minutes. They chose not to troubleshoot the problem immediately, which could have potentially interfered with aviation activity.

“We didn’t want to disrupt any of the operations during one of the busiest times of the day,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said July 31.

The FAA waited until late in the night, restoring services by 4:50 a.m. CDT July 28.

A preliminary report indicates the incident spurred 81 delayed departures. However, FAA officials now say they are unsure of how many flights were delayed because of the technical problem or severe thunderstorms in the area.

The two lines were functioning on a new system called the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure service. The administration awarded the FTI contract to Harris in July 2002.

Last week, Harris officials said scheduled maintenance affected the terminal switch configuration. FTI had uploaded a new version of software. The particular terminal switch configuration is unique to O'Hare and another airport in St. Louis.

For operational reasons, FAA officials opted not to activate the backup Emergency Communication system in this instance, Harris officials said.

“Harris, in conjunction with the FAA, has developed a set of protocols and procedures that will prevent this specific problem from happening again,” said John O'Sullivan, Harris FTI program vice president.

Currently, the Transportation Department’s inspector general and lawmakers are questioning whether to continue the FTI program because it is behind schedule, not fulfilling expectations and raising safety concerns.

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

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