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Failure to Communicate


Serious questions must be answered after a power failure snarled New York's air traffic control last week. For starters, shouldn't the Federal Aviation Administration's lines be routed through dedicated circuits? It was AT&T;'s electronic switching system -- the company routes many other customers' circuits through that same equipment -- that ran out of juice and knocked flight controllers off the line.

Subjecting air traffic communications to the danger of such a failure is asking for trouble. Switching machines can get overloaded or, as in the tie-ups that blocked local telephone networks this summer, suffer catastrophic breakdowns. FAA communications chiefs had already proposed a new, dedicated-circuit backup system to lessen vulnerability, but bureaucratic wrangling between the FAA and the General Services Administration blocked action. That in-fighting has now come back to haunt the FAA.

The failure of AT&T;'s power converter, when switched over from utility power to a local generator, has not yet been satisfactorily explained. Such devices usually do not fail so completely without warning. Moreover, that single power converter was a clear weak link that should have been recognized. The company needs to install backup equipment to guarantee the safety of FAA lines at the nation's major airports.

Finally, although AT&T; and its employee union have rushed to exonerate the switching center crew, the report that the number of "power-qualified" personnel was cut from 10 to three is deeply disturbing, as was the fact that audible alarms were "blocked." AT&T; says its remaining three "power-qualified" personnel were away at class learning a new alarm scheme. A light reportedly burned out in a control-center indicator, and other personnel did not know the power system was down. Strangely, no one thought to send anyone to look in on the battery room.

Was this problem avoidable? Definitely. Can it happen again? Probably, if other switching centers are as poorly supported as the one in New York. Should the public accept the resulting uncertainties? Not at all. Given the growing importance of telecommunications in American industry and commerce, steps must be taken to ensure that such potentially life-threatening breakdowns do not occur.

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