Air traffic control plan is called unsafe by union Technicians say proposal lacks alarms, monitors to warn of failure


WASHINGTON -- A billion-dollar air traffic control system that is scheduled to start service next spring will jeopardize air safety, according to the union representing the technicians who will maintain it, because it lacks alarms and monitoring systems to warn when it is beginning to fail.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration is not sure the new software, which will not enter service until 1999 at the earliest, will function properly after the calendar rolls over to 2000.

The union, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, is seeking a delay in the phase-in, which is scheduled to begin in March 1999 at Reagan National Airport near Washington.

According to the electronics technicians, if a processing glitch makes the current air traffic system briefly lose track of an airplane in flight, the equipment will sound a shrill alarm and flash lights indicating the source of the problem.

In the new system, if a controller were not watching the blip at that moment, the failure could go undetected until a problem became "catastrophic" -- meaning an accident or a computer collapse.

Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration belatedly agree that a better alarm system would be desirable, but they say it is important to put new equipment in the field because the existing computer screens are falling apart.

The new equipment can be deployed safely as it is designed, they say, at the terminal radar approach control, or tracon, for Washington. New York and Dallas/Fort Worth might follow soon after.

Because the three regions are among the nation's busiest tracons, they are poor places to try out a new system, said the president of the union, Mike Fanfalone.

"Pocatello, Idaho, where there is not much traffic, doesn't deserve this system, either," he said yesterday.

But the acting deputy administrator of the FAA, Monte Belger, said that the new equipment, called the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or Stars, which will go into about 250 tracons, will be "safe and efficient."

The FAA will continue negotiations with the technicians, Belger said, but not all the problems they had raised will be solved by March.

An independent expert, Kenneth Mead, the inspector general of the department of transportation, said that "a number of the issues they have raised bear on the efficiency and effectiveness with which they can do their jobs," and that those jobs were important to safety.

But he stopped short of saying the new system is unsafe.

A consultant, John Fearnsides, who was brought in at the urging of Congress last fall to help mediate between the unions and the FAA over technology issues, said that he hoped for a reconciliation before March, but that "there clearly will be a problem if the maintenance people don't feel it's a safe system."

Fearnsides said the FAA had a difficult history in consulting with its employees. A huge software modernization project collapsed early in the '90s, wasting about $1 billion, partly because controllers were invited into the development process but had difficulty agreeing what they wanted, he said. In the Stars project, he added, the employees might have been improperly held at bay.

"Mike Fanfalone is a reasonable fellow, and I think he felt driven to this," said Fearnsides, referring to the president of Pass.

At the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the president, Michael McNally, said that if the technicians could not be convinced that the system was safe, then it could not legally be put into service. The controllers had also sought a delay in the new system, until they negotiated a schedule of improvements with the FAA.

Fearnsides said he was trying to help the FAA and the union craft a system for consulting each other in a timely manner in developing new software, because much of the existing equipment is more than 25 years old and difficult to maintain. Fanfalone said the FAA wanted to have Stars in service before it lTC went back to Capitol Hill for budget hearings next spring.

Even before next March, the Air Force plans to put Stars to use at Eglin Air Force Base, in the Florida panhandle. Neil Planzer, the Air Force liaison to the FAA, said testing would start this summer. The Air Force will rely on the FAA to certify that the hardware and software are safe, he said.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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