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Familiar FAA Modernization Failures Exposed In Thursday Travel Mess - (11/20/2009)

WASHINGTON -- Just hours before the start of one of the busiest air travel weeks of the year, 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 on Thursday. And the future looks more shaky if the FAA is allowed to continue with its aggressive and dangerous campaign to close some air traffic control facilities and combine operations into a smaller number of locations, increasing the risk of large-scale problems for travelers in the event of a computer or telecommunications system failure.

The single-point failure of the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) system that shut down the nation's automated flight plan processing system Thursday morning - stranding or delaying thousands of passengers - is an indictment of the FAA's continuing agenda to run critical aviation safety systems like a business and put cost savings over building more redundancy. A lack of adequate back-up systems leaves the nation's traffic control system in an unacceptably risky position where a regional or, in Thursday's case, nationwide shutdown could happen at any time without warning due to technological failure or the lack of adequate resources to locate and fix problems quickly.

Thursday’s incident was not unique or unprecedented. The FTI system has failed several times before. And a Sept. 30, 2008 Inspector General report on FTI stated, “Technical problems are causing unscheduled outages and creating risks to air- traffic control operations.”

“Right now, air traffic controllers do not have a high confidence level in the reliability of the equipment they are tasked with using to keep the system moving safely and efficiently," NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. "Worse, we are increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by the FAA’s refusal to include NATCA as a stakeholder in the collaborative process needed for modernization, despite public statements that indicated this FAA would not follow the failed path of the last administration. The FAA cannot succeed in modernization efforts if it excludes key stakeholders, puts business-model cost-cutting ahead of redundancy and continues to outsource key equipment with inadequate oversight and technical support service.”

Rinaldi again called on the Senate to move a long-delayed FAA reauthorization bill that would address all of these issues. The House passed its FAA bill in May. "Thursday's incident is the latest reminder of the importance of long-term planning for the modernization of our air traffic control system,” Rinaldi said. “The FAA reauthorization legislation will go a long way toward giving air traffic controllers and pilots the tools they need to operate a 21st Century ATC system. NATCA implores the Senate to take this legislation out of its holding pattern and to enact a long-term comprehensive FAA bill that will give our NAS a long overdue modernization and stimulate our economy."

Another key issue related to the FAA's modernization efforts is the agency’s aggressive and go-it-alone agenda to close as many radar facilities as it possibly can and consolidate air traffic control services in fewer locations before Congress can apply a sensible, inclusive approach to considering such moves. Currently the FAA is moving aggressively to close facilities in many states, including Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Ohio and Texas.

“The FAA’s moves on realigning facilities will result in putting all of their proverbial eggs in single baskets, which opens up a huge risk factor when considering that existing points of failure would have the potential to affect many more people than one local facility alone,” Rinaldi said. “This is a needless risk to take and we urge Congress to take a closer look at the FAA's plans to remove further redundancy from the system."

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