FTI hits rough air

The Federal Aviation Administration is having trouble transitioning to a new network intended to consolidate the systems that allow air traffic controllers to communicate with pilots. As costs escalate and deadlines slip, allegations of poor management, repeated contractor visits to fix failures and false performance measurements further hamper the effort.

Eventually, the problems could escalate into safety risks, according to some FAA employees and aviation experts familiar with the project. FAA officials say they are confident in the integrity of the FTI network, which is nearly on schedule.

The FAA is trying to consolidate multiple air traffic networks into a single one, the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI). The agency is paying MCI as much as $604 million to use the old system while paying Harris to develop and implement the new one.

MCI has been providing some services through the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System (LINCS).

The FTI effort has drawn the attention of the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG). In a preliminary briefing, OIG officials said the FAA should develop a detailed plan and timetable for moving services to the new network and consider terminating the project if the goals are not met.

The FAA awarded the FTI contract to Harris in 2002. The OIG presented the preliminary findings of its ongoing audit to FAA managers in September 2005.

The snapshot of the OIG's work at that point states that FTI program managers have not validated the costs and benefits and are measuring success based on equipment setup, known as "site acceptance," rather than service activation, or "service acceptance."

The program management approach is flawed, and the FAA has no way to hold Harris accountable for its performance under the contract terms, according to the OIG.

OIG officials stressed that the draft work presented in September might not all become part of the final findings and recommendations.

The program has also come under fire for mounting costs. Last May, the assistant inspector general for aviation and special program audits issued a report noting that delays in implementing FTI had already diminished the network's potential to save money by $30 million. The transition is scheduled to be complete by December 2007.

Could FTI make skies unfriendly?

Although the OIG's preliminary findings do not mention safety, FAA technicians and aviation safety experts warn that FTI is a disaster waiting to happen because the new system does not work properly.

"You're sitting on a program that if it doesn't explode is going to implode in a pretty major way," said one aviation expert with close knowledge of the project who is critical of the Harris contract. "This is to FAA what the Challenger was to NASA. We think there is going to be a significant outage."

FTI-related safety issues have already cropped up. In a case that came to light in November, a Harris subcontractor tried to migrate phone circuits that carry radar data at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to the new network, but the circuits failed and there was no backup.

In another case, contractors moved a weather radar system near the Tulsa, Okla., airport to the new network in October 2004. A year later, the radar system is still unable to transmit data to the air traffic control tower using the FTI network. It remains connected to the old MCI network with its full transition on hold pending a redesign of its FTI interface, Harris officials said.

FAA employees have been vocal about their experiences with FTI glitches because they are concerned about costs and safety. Technicians are complaining that, in many cases, contractors must return multiple times to get services running properly.

Estimates on the number of sites that are communicating effectively with the new network differ depending on how one interprets performance measures. Harris said that, as of Nov. 4, FTI had accepted more than 1,800 services, of which more than 1,000 are operational. The FAA said that, as of Nov. 22, FTI had accepted 2,000 services and fully transitioned 1,600.

A partial list of 25 air traffic control sites and facilities in the FAA's Southwest Region shows that the FTI lines there cannot be launched for operational reasons. In the FAA's Eastern Service Area, there were failures at 12 of the 19 sites where FTI equipment was installed before services were transitioned. Harris officials said glitches are normal in the early stages and that is why all services are tested, retested and tested again before going operational.

FAA officials maintain that no safety issues exist, adding that FTI encompasses more than just MCI's LINCS communications. For example, Harris announced last week that 80 percent of the FAA's IP traffic has migrated to the FTI network. About half of all future telecommunications requirements for the airspace system will need IP services.

Steve Dash, manager of the FAA's Telecommunications Management Division, which oversees FTI, said the program is four months behind schedule because it took more time to order services than planned. He said he is aware that contractors are visiting facilities repeatedly but said the number of return visits is decreasing.

Because of the nature of the National Airspace System, Harris and the FAA had to transition the most complex facilities first. Dash said the project should pick up speed now that they have overcome that hurdle.

"That doesn't necessarily mean we're totally sanguine about everything we are doing," he said. "There are a lot of challenges in this business."

He acknowledged that the FAA and Harris learned a number of lessons from the radar outage at Chicago's airport.

Harris officials insist that FTI is safe, despite the problems at some sites.

"Let me assure you that safety is at the forefront of all our decisions," said John O'Sullivan, FTI program vice president at Harris. "We do not ever want to have things be unsafe. That's why it's really shocking to me to have this accusation that anything that Harris is doing is unsafe. I would say that categorically that is incorrect."

Harris runs tests at its own labs, at an FAA operational test facility in New Jersey and, sometimes, at key sites. At the actual site, Harris ensures that equipment can communicate with one of the company's remote facilities. If a problem arises after a site has transitioned, the service will run on the MCI network until the disruption is resolved.

Telecom experts say the OIG report should soon reveal the causes of the FTI glitches. "I think it's clear that the transition has been extremely difficult on this program," said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. "They are three years from award and they are still having a lot of problems. How far behind they are right now is somewhat a matter of dispute depending on who you talk to."

Suss said Harris has made significant progress in getting the program back on schedule.

"Harris has dealt with many large, complex communications jobs, and communications is at the core of their mission," he said. "They've got the program management skills, the technical skills -- there's no question in my mind."

System failure

There have been some difficult transitions from the Federal

Aviation Administration's existing networks to the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI).

For example:

  • At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (left), circuits relaying radar data did not operate after being moved to the new network.
  • In Tulsa, Okla., a weather radar system connected to FTI in October 2004 can only transmit information via the old network.
  • At Orlando International Airport, when FAA employees tried to use backup long-range radar connected via FTI, the phone circuits failed, resulting in a 22-minute interruption in air traffic. The contractor took 20 days to fix the problem.

-- Aliya Sternstein

Project has long history

Curtis Porter, project manager for the Federal Aviation Administration Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), said technology installed 15 years ago or more requires contractors to reconfigure equipment. "We are essentially disturbing the technology that's been there working a long time," he said.

The contractors both have extensive experience with the FAA. Other programs Harris developed for the agency include the Weather and Radar Processor, a weather service for en route air traffic controllers, and the Voice Switching and Control System, which provides air-to-ground communication links.

MCI spokeswoman Stefanie Scott said FTI's problems are not related to MCI service. "We stand by our service record," she said. "MCI has continued to exceed the highest service levels to the FAA for the past 13 years."

-- Aliya Sternstein

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