WASHINGTON -- Stymied by mismanagement, the Federal Aviation Administration has squandered 15 years and at least half a billion dollars on a new air traffic control system that is still years from completion and already obsolete.
In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan dismissed 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, the government pledged to replace many of them by overhauling and modernizing the system that guides planes from takeoff to landing.
But today, in aging control centers across the country, overworked controllers direct tens of thousands of flights each day with the same screens that were out of date 15 years ago. So fragile is the equipment that technicians who open it for maintenance fear doing more harm than good.
During breakdowns, which are more and more frequent, controllers carry slips of paper around darkened control rooms or read commands aloud, instead of sending computer messages or clicking on symbols on a screen. At such times, skill and luck substitute for technology.
Even when the system works, controllers are using screens so old that they "look like all the 'Victory at Sea' movies," as the head of the biggest pilots union, J. Randolph Babbitt, has put it, referring to the 1950s documentary series about World War II.
The FAA and the airlines say no accidents can be attributed to system breakdowns. But about two dozen times in the past two years, the 25-year-old mainframes that drive the controllers' screens at five of the busiest centers have failed, delaying hundreds of planes each time, sometimes for hours.
In Chicago, at the busiest center, seven failures were reported last year alone, including three in mid-July.
The major airlines say that even when things run normally, about 20,000 delays a day are due to air traffic control. Although most are short, the delays cost them up to $5 billion a year, the airlines say.
A study released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board also says that the system is safe but that its inefficiencies drive up the cost of airline operations and delay travelers.
The FAA's struggle to rebuild the air traffic control system illustrates how the government's best intentions can be defeated by a constantly changing bureaucracy with a dearth of experienced leaders who can manage complex technical projects.
Describing the agency's efforts, George R. Meinig Jr., a retired admiral who was part of an independent team brought in by the FAA to evaluate what had gone wrong, said, "They needed some adult supervision along the way."
Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican who sits on the Committee on Governmental Affairs, said: "The FAA is a victim of BTC its own poor management. If the agency devoted more time to managing itself and less time to defending its deficiencies, the air traffic control system would have been replaced years ago."
Interviews with current and former agency officials and a review of government documents show that the agency allocated billions of dollars to update the system and hired outside experts to help.
The records and interviews also portray an agency overwhelmed by technical problems, making ambitious and expensive plans in search of the perfect system, only to abandon them upon realizing they could not be pulled off.
For example, the FAA initially planned to save money by consolidating controllers into about 20 large centers, rather than maintaining more than 250 smaller ones. But after four years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars, officials discarded the idea. Consolidation required different hardware and software, and the change in direction wasted thousands of hours of effort.
"By the time you build what they wanted, they changed it and they want something else," said Gerald W. Ebker, who headed the division of IBM -- since sold to the defense contractor Loral Federal Systems -- that was selected to write the software.
At other times, IBM also had problems separating the practical from the impossible. The new computer system it promised to build was supposed to replay past events, like a videocassette player, at 10 times normal speed, as an aid in analyzing traffic patterns and controller errors. But IBM later said that was impossible.
The FAA, however, stuck to its guns and insisted on the capability, driving up the project's costs. Only much later did the agency realize that such a high-speed playback was unnecessary.
FAA officials counter that IBM, which won the $3.6 billion contract to replace the system and repeatedly failed to produce working software, shares in the blame. In hindsight, everybody agrees that the FAA should have recognized the problems sooner.
Finally, in 1994, FAA Administrator David Hinson pulled the plug on the original replacement project, called the Advanced Automation System, accepting that about $500 million had been spent on software that would never be used. He authorized a slimmed-down plan, an $898 million contract to deliver about 1,000 new screens and workstations for the 3,200 controllers in the 20 largest centers, beginning in 1998.
That plan, managers say, is on track. But agency officials acknowledge that the system makes no provision for incorporating new satellite-based technology that could shorten almost every flight.
Industry experts say the failure to set an achievable goal at the beginning and follow through has been a devastating setback.
"The failure of the Advanced Automation System is going to be with the FAA for a long time," said Maurice F. Connor, who became director of safety and technology at the controllers union a year ago.