ATC under fire

A breakdown of the FAA computers Nov. 19 brought severe criticism from members of Congress, FAA unions, and others. For the second time in just more than a year, the air traffic computer system went down and brought about massive delays for airlines, general aviation flights under instrument flight rules, and other actions that require transfer of data. With one small circuit in the computer going out, all information had to be typed in by hand.

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the full Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, asked the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation to investigate the system where the failure occurred and to report in 60 days.

The two lawmakers noted these outages are occurring just as the FAA is trying to move ahead on the next generation air transportation system (NextGen) satellite-controlled system. NextGen is forecast to cost more than $40 billion when completed, but all Washington watchers know government estimates are invariably low.

Two of the FAA’s largest unions said the administration has not done enough to prevent even small glitches in the system.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said “the Federal Aviation Administration’s flawed patchwork network of outsourced and poorly backed-up communications systems of questionable reliability was exposed for the nation and Congress to see.” The union warned the future looks shaky if the FAA is allowed to continue with its campaign to close some air traffic control facilities and combine operations into a smaller number of locations.

Meanwhile, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), the AFL-CIO union that represents FAA and Department of Transportation technicians, said the problem could have been corrected in minutes if the FAA owned and maintained the system. Instead, the system is owned by the Harris Corp. PASS President Tom Brantley said Harris representatives tried to troubleshoot the problem remotely, taking four hours to locate and correct the problem.

Oberstar and Costello said they wanted to know why it took four hours to isolate and correct the trouble, asking if FAA oversight of its contract with the Harris Corp. is sufficient. They added the FAA’s relationship with its vendors is critical as NextGen development will require more such partnerships.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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