Key House leader pushes for FAA telecom project funding

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee is pushing to stick with a major Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications program, which has been criticized for being behind schedule, not fulfilling expectations and raising safety concerns.

Meanwhile, the vendor operating the older telecom system, Verizon Business, is lobbying lawmakers to cancel the program.

The House Appropriations Committee recently approved the $28 million that the Bush administration had requested for the program. Before the vote, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, wrote identical letters in support of the new program to the leaders of the Appropriations Committee and the committee’s Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, and District of Columbia Subcommittee.

An April FAA inspector general report recommended that the agency reconsider pursuing the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program. The IG has launched a second audit 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.

“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 in a letter to colleagues. “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.”

In the end, no one offered such an amendment.

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

But the April IG report stated that the program, which has been designated high-risk, will likely miss its December 2007 deadline and fail to deliver the projected $102 million in savings for 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 staff member said Verizon has been lobbying on Capitol Hill 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,” said Mica’s spokesman, Jim Coon. “Clearly, the program needs to be watched, carefully. We have been doing our due diligence with respect to this program, and therefore, the chairman sent that letter to the appropriators.”

Mica was satisfied that there were no amendments to impede or slow down the program any further, Coon added.

FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said program officials appreciate Mica’s support and confidence in the FAA’s ability to implement the FTI program.

Verizon spokeswoman Stefanie Scott referred to the IG report to explain Verizon’s position. “The IG report pointed out serious issues impeding the FTI transition process, of which lawmakers need to be aware, including the lack of a comprehensive transition plan to guide the transition process,” she said.

“Verizon is working to bring this and other serious FTI transition issues to the attention of policy-makers,” she added.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the House Government Reform Committee’s chairman, has also voiced concerns about FTI. In late May, he wrote to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta questioning the safety of the program, based on a 2005 radar outage at Chicago O’Hare International Airport that occured during a switchover to FTI.

To avoid a similar episode, the FAA must validate requirements with regional officials before transitioning services, the April IG report said. Government sources said this means the FAA must stop certain activation activities until the program office and regional sites validate requirements.

“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,” Jones 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,” she said.

Jones added that the FAA has always tested FTI services before deploying them to mitigate risks. At the outset, an independent assessment determined that the system’s services were safe.

FTI outage reported at Atlanta tower

Federal Aviation Administration Telecommunications Infrastructure services at an Atlanta air traffic control tower went down for four and a half hours June 8, causing three flight delays, according to the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), an FAA employee union.

However, officials at the FAA and 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.

Because data services were down, air traffic controllers had to fax flight plans between control facilities and the tower and then handwrite information on flight strips, said Dave Spero, a PASS regional vice president. Normally, such tasks are automatic, so the flight strips are ready for air traffic controllers when a plane is about to take off or land.

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

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. Last year, an FTI failure at Chicago O’Hare International Airport knocked out flight control radar. Unlike the Atlanta incident, the Chicago outage occurred as the airport was migrating the network from an older system to the new infrastructure. There was no backup system available in either case.

— Aliya Sternstein

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