Air system upgrades march on

Federal Aviation Administration officials are moving ahead with the Global Communications, Navigation and Surveillance System (GCNSS) for managing air traffic.

Officials awarded the system's second-phase contract to Boeing Co./Phantom Works. The deal has a base value of $12.9 million, with an option to extend it to $23.2 million.

FAA officials are installing modern systems such as the Traffic Flow Modernization System, which aims to expand airspace capacity and cut costs by enabling collaboration among airlines.

Phase 2 of GCNSS will focus on three elements of a System Wide Information Management infrastructure: developing a surveillance data network, a weather network and an aeronautical information management network for data sharing. The goal is to give users and air traffic controllers a common operating picture to boost the agency's response rates to weather and security concerns and to facilitate collaborative decisions.

The system is especially critical, according to Dave Jones, Boeing's GCNSS program manager, "particularly at a time when the nation's air traffic system is again facing the crippling impact of congestion and delays."

Union officials don't contest the idea of technology upgrades, but they believe that ensuring a viable controller workforce should be the aviation agency's top priority.

"We're noticing that at a lot of control facilities, they don't even have enough staffing to take controllers off position to do the training for new technology," said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

By 2010, an additional 2,000 controllers will be needed to respond to an anticipated increase in traffic, according to the Government Accountability Office. And since the beginning of this year, the FAA has lost nearly 400 controllers and has hired one. GAO officials predict that half of all air traffic controllers will retire in the next decade.

Church pointed to a control center in Anchorage, Alaska, which is slated to initiate an FAA modernization plan, the Advanced Technology and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP), in January 2005.

The center has 120 controllers, 106 of which are fully trained, but it could lose 11 controllers by next year when ATOP begins, he said. "When you're trying to implement technology that large and that important, not addressing who is taking [controllers'] places is a huge problem, and that is indicative all across the country," he said.

When staffing becomes scarce, the ability to train controllers on new technology is the first thing to go, Church said, adding that the efficiency of the system is the next to suffer.

The agency's fiscal 2005 budget proposal does not include funding to hire more controllers. But NATCA lobbied congressional appropriators for additional money for air traffic controllers. The House included $9 million — $5 million less than the organization recommended — exclusively for hiring and training more controllers in the Transportation Appropriations Bill. The Senate is still considering the legislation. Church said NATCA is optimistic that the Senate will grant $14 million — enough to cover 350 additional controllers.

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