FTI delay leaves FAA paying for two systems at once

The Federal Aviation Administration is a year behind schedule in completing a new national airspace communications program, meaning it must continue paying for its existing network while also funding the new network, FAA officials said Dec. 7.

The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure program is intended to save hundreds of millions of dollars in operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one.

The FAA had planned to finish the transition from the old network to FTI by December 2007, but an April audit by the Transportation Department's inspector general found that the program would likely miss the deadline and fail to deliver the projected $102 million in savings for fiscal 2006 unless FAA managers accelerated the transition to the new system almost tenfold. The report recommends that the agency reconsider pursuing the program.

FAA officials said Dec. 7 that the agency has since retooled the schedule to end by December 2008.

“The new baseline is based upon a risk-adjusted, high-confidence schedule,” FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. The FAA plans to meet the date by sustaining its current transition rate, she added.

“The FAA will realize network-level savings after the capital investment is completed,” Jones said.

The IG launched a second audit in June to evaluate the FAA’s progress in drafting a new program schedule, crafting a cost/benefit analysis and building a transition plan. The audit will also study whether FTI interferes with air travel safety because it affects how air traffic controllers communicate with pilots.

“Our review is ongoing,” said David Barnes, a spokesman for DOT’s IG office. As a matter of policy, the IG does not provide estimates for when its work will conclude, he added.

About 42.5 percent of the most complex services have been switched over to FTI, FAA officials said Dec. 7.

The FAA awarded the FTI contract to Harris in July 2002.

The agency is paying Verizon Business for the existing system -- which carries critical radar, weather and other air traffic data -- and paying Harris for the new system, until FAA and Harris fully move the network to FTI.

The Verizon system consists of a backbone network of nodes, each interconnected by diverse paths. Only 46 of the network’s 160 most critical nodes have been deactivated, according to FAA officials. FAA pays a monthly recurring charge for the A-nodes that are still in service, Jones said.

After the first IG report came out in April, FAA officials said they planned to negotiate with Verizon Business before March 2007 to extend the contract for the system through March 2008.

Verizon spokeswoman Stefanie Scott said Dec. 7 that Verizon Business is currently in discussions with FAA.

“Verizon Business is maintaining a significant portion” of the old network, she added but could not comment any further.

Harris officials declined to comment for this story, deferring inquiries to the FAA.

The program garnered congressional attention this summer, when four senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee wrote to Maria Cino, then acting DOT secretary, to say they were concerned and are watching the FAA’s progress. A May letter from Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the House Government Reform Committee’s chairman, to former DOT Secretary Norman Mineta questioned the safety of the program.

Some in Congress are endorsing the program. In June, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee, encouraged appropriators to stick with FTI. The House Appropriations Committee ultimately approved the $28 million the Bush administration requested for the program. On Dec. 7, Republicans selected Mica to serve as the top-ranking Republican member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for the upcoming session of Congress.

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