New Air Safety System Takes Flight

FAA brings Chicago, four other airports up to date, while they await new systems

'All in the Family" was the top show on television. President Nixon lifted the trade embargo on China. And mass murderer Charles Manson was found guilty. That's when the computer system guiding aircraft into one of the nation's busiest airport was first installed.

But by Christmas, the antiquated air traffic control computer system covering the Chicago area will be updated.

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to install $131 million worth of new equipment here. The upgrade comes months after several widely publicized breakdowns of the computer that helps shepherd jets through Chicago skies.

A $13 million computer replacement is the first of a $65 million phase-out of old computers at five major air traffic control centers. The replacement is an effort to bring the airport's computers somewhat up to date prior to a sweeping revamp of the air traffic control system beginning later this decade. It also represents a small but welcomed step forward for an agency that, even before the fatal mishaps involving ValuJet Flight 592 in May and TWA Flight 800 in July, faced hard scrutiny over its structure, method of financing, and overall mission.

While the TWA and ValuJet tragedies provoked concern about FAA safety procedures, the upgrade of flight control equipment highlights how the FAA's challenges extend from staffing down to the way it handles its most basic hardware. The FAA has long been criticized for the pace of its efforts to bring its air traffic control system into the 21st century.

Vital parts of the FAA are severely understaffed, with the number of air traffic control employees more than 20 percent below agency standards. Consequently, technicians spend too much time fixing, rather than preventing breakdowns, says Stephanie Voyda, spokeswoman for Professional Airways Systems Specialists in Washington.

"The FAA has done far too little to hire new people," says Ms. Voyda. In some control centers, she says, about 40 percent of the technicians are eligible to retire. And it takes from three to five years to train a new technician.

The hardware problems have been more prolonged. Although the FAA recently made good in Chicago, for 15 years it promoted a high-tech streamlining of the nation's air traffic control system. In developing this plan, the agency spent more than $500 million. It scaled back the program in 1994 because of repeated cost overruns and unmet deadlines.

The agency last spring announced reforms in procurement and staffing procedures, but the fruits have yet to be widely seen. The Chicago area's main air traffic control computer in Aurora, Ill., is one of the agency's biggest white elephants. The 25-year-old IBM 9020E computer broke down seven times between May and November of last year. It annually handles some 2.9 million commercial flights across six Midwestern states.

Air traffic controllers praise the FAA for upgrading the equipment, but say the control systems at several major airports nationwide are woefully old and unreliable. The FAA also plans to replace computers at Cleveland, Dallas/Ft. Worth, New York, and Washington.

"It's not cheap, it's not easy, but the FAA can do the right thing if it wants to, and it has proven it in Chicago," says John Carr, a union representative in Chicago for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Still, "coast-to-coast, the air traffic control system is in need of repair or replacement," Mr. Carr says.

The FAA says the current systems are safe, with a 99.4 percent rate of reliability. The National Transportation Safety Board called the systems "very safe" in a January report, but noted that equipment failures have caused very costly air traffic slowdowns. Airlines put annual losses from delays at some $5 billion.

The computer upgrade for Chicago and the four other troubled control centers will bring these control systems up to date. But it is a stopgap effort prior to a sweeping revamp of the air traffic control system beginning later this decade.

The FAA announced on Sept. 16 that Raytheon Company, of Lexington, Mass., won a $1 billion contract to replace antiquated air traffic control equipment with new computers, displays, and software at some 370 commercial and military airports. Known as the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, the new equipment should improve safety and cut down on delays. Boston is scheduled to receive the first STARS computer in 1998, with other airports receiving upgrades within the next 10 years.

But FAA critics say STARS and other modernization efforts are unlikely to go smoothly until the agency is restructured, clarifies its mission, and safeguards its budget from deep fiscal cutbacks. Until last January, the FAA was funded primarily by a 10 percent airline ticket tax that expired during the federal budget wrangle.

An FAA funding bill for 1997 - passed by Congress and awaiting President Clinton's signature - has not solved the prickly issue of how the agency will be financed long term.

There is wide agreement that user fees will provide a bigger portion of future agency funding. But airline industry players are far from agreeing over how the fees should be assessed among them.

FAA critics also find fault with what they consider the hazardous contradiction in the agency's "dual mission": promote air travel and ensure that jetliners are safe to fly. With this partly in mind, some observers favor transforming the FAA's air traffic control system, which eats up more than half of the FAA's budget, into a private or semigovernment entity, as in most developed countries.

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