Communications Failure at Memphis Airport Highlights FAA Negligence

MEMPHIS, TN - Yesterday’s communications outage at Memphis International Airport was completely preventable, says the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union that represents Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) technicians. At fault is the FAA’s failure to address serious deficiencies in Harris Corporation’s Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), which provides circuitry and communications for the FAA.

The outage was caused by the loss of a circuit card at subcontractor Bell South’s central office, which prevented telecommunication lines from feeding information to air traffic and ultimately resulted in a complete shutdown of radar, radio and telephone contact at the Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center. Previously, when communications lines failed, a backup telecommunications system automatically came online to support these vital systems until the primary communications lines could be restored, thus preventing a full-scale failure. However, the FAA lowered the standards and definition for diversity in order to award this contract to Harris. As an effort to make the FTI contract more profitable, Harris Corporation merged the backup path for these systems together.

“The problem we experienced in Memphis yesterday should not have happened and illustrates the FAA’s complete and utter refusal to accept the reality that the FTI contract is impacting the safety of the flying public,” said Dave Spero, PASS regional vice president. “The FAA has given Harris the keys to the kingdom even though they have a proven track record of failing to provide this critical service. The FAA has spent billions of dollars replacing what they deemed to be antiquated telecommunications systems; ironically, the antiquated systems operated much more successfully and safely than what Harris FTI is providing.”

The FTI program was introduced by the FAA as a cost-saving measure; however, according to the Inspector General, acquisition costs have increased while cost savings have decreased by over $400 million – more than half of the FAA’s original estimated savings. FTI has also been plagued with additional problems, including insufficient training of contractors, poor planning and management, and substandard service. Furthermore, with no services to fall back on when there are problems with FTI, there is even greater risk of outages occurring repeatedly at facilities throughout the country. “Outages of this type are preventable,” said Spero. “It is the FAA’s ultimate responsibility to ensure a safe and efficient National Airspace System. Unfortunately, it is failing miserably.”

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PASS represents more than 11,000 employees of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense who install, maintain, support and certify air traffic control and national defense equipment, inspect and oversee the commercial and general aviation industries, develop flight procedures and perform quality analyses of the aviation systems. For more information, visit the PASS website at www.passnational.org.

 

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