Independent panel to review FAA system outage

Agency appoints expert panel to review telecommunications infrastructure program

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that it will convene an independent panel to review the Nov. 19 computer glitch that caused major air traffic delays before Thanksgiving.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt announced that a group of independent experts would be called on to examine the outage of the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) that temporarily prevented the automatic filing of flight plans into the agency's National Airspace Data Interchange Network.

The outage didn’t affect critical safety systems or public safety and air traffic controllers’ radar, and flight communications remained operational, according to the FAA. However, during the outage air traffic controllers had to manually manage flight plan data in accordance with the agency’s contingency plans.

Officials traced the problem, which took about four hours to correct, back to a software configuration problem within FTI in Salt Lake City.

“Last month’s outage was unacceptable, and we need to understand what happened and make certain it doesn’t happen again,” Babbitt said in a statement. “This panel is going to take a hard look at every part of the FTI operation. We have an extremely reliable system but we need to have the confidence that problems can be solved quickly and efficiently so our air traffic controllers and aircraft operators have the tools they need and travelers aren’t inconvenienced.”

The FAA said the panel will produce two reports for Babbit in early 2010. One report will focus on the outage and include suggestions for any immediate changes that need to be made to the FTI system, management procedures, or oversight. The second will examine FTI’s present and future architecture in relation to future FAA systems.

Harris Corp. won the $3.5 billion FTI contract in 2002. The contract has a 10-year base period and five option years.

Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Harris, said in an e-mail statement that the company has “further enhanced maintenance procedures for transition events and the replacement of network devices,” and the company would provide the panel with whatever information the Transportation Department, FAA’s parent agency, needs to review.

Raimondi said the FTI service interruption was a “rare anomaly” and that last year only two hundredths of one percent of all flight delays were FTI network-related. He added, “That said, the recent FTI service interruption is unacceptable to us, just as it is to the FAA and travelers who were delayed.”

Some members of the expert panel include: Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer; FAA Chief Information Officer Dave Bowen; and the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Organization CIO, Steve Cooper, the FAA said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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