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Controllers Seek Steady Support for En Route Modernization - (1/2/2000)

WASHINGTON, D.C.— After millions spent and unprecedented progress, the successful modernization of the air traffic control system is in danger of being stopped mid-stream. Congress must commit steady funding and support for the nationwide automation modernization program, if the nation’s system is to meet the demands of the 21st century, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Recent computer failures at Boston and Washington regional air traffic control centers prove the years of Band-Aid solutions and temporary patches are impairing controllers’ ability to keep the skies as safe and efficient as they could be. This becomes an issue of increasing severity, as traffic volumes continue to increase each year.

The computer processor replacement, completed on Oct. 14, 1999, was the first phase of this project to replace key computer hardware in all 20 en route centers. These facilities control high altitude traffic in transit between airport terminal areas. The new equipment is more than four times faster and reliable than its predecessor. For the transition to be effective, the Federal Aviation Administration must replace the 30-year old software program as well. Currently, software limitations restrict these new computers to only one-tenth of their processing potential.

“This is like building a new bridge across a river,” said Randy Schwitz, NATCA’s executive vice president. “Can you imagine building a state of the art steel frame, then using the brittle 100 year old wood from the original bridge for the driving surface? What a waste of money, the new bridge wouldn’t be strong enough to hold any more traffic than the old one. But we’re essentially doing the same thing with the en route centers.”

Unlike the software in use today, the introduction of modern software architecture and language will serve as a platform to support the introduction of new systems, a feature designed to circumvent modernization problems that could be incurred down the road. Other upgrade benefits include, lower costs, less system maintenance and more effective tools for controllers that will allow them to provide better service to the entire aviation community.

“Both Congress and the FAA need to make this project a top priority,” Schwitz said. “We need a multi-year, multi-step commitment with continuous funding. The system can’t wait for ebbs and flows. Congress must commit to providing resources at a steady pace until our entire air traffic control system is effectively modernized.”

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