Buffalo Communications Failure is the Latest Issue to be Ignored by the FAA

BUFFALO, NY - Tuesday’s telecommunications outage at Buffalo Airport has the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), the union that represents Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) technicians, wondering when the FAA plans to address serious deficiencies in Harris Corporation’s Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), which provides circuitry and communications for the FAA. The outage comes on the heels of identical large-scale outages in Memphis, Austin and Jacksonville.

The outage occurred when the Erie Country Water Authority inadvertently severed two fiber optic cables, which prevented telecommunications lines from feeding vital flight information to air traffic. The result was a complete loss of communications for over four hours. PASS technicians immediately isolated the problem and called Harris to dispatch a technician; however, Harris only had one technician covering both Buffalo and Rochester, and both the technician and the corporation were unresponsive. “We were told that Harris did not see any problems in their system indicating issues at Buffalo even though we were in the middle of a major communications failure,” said Bruce Milroy, a local PASS representative. “To think that the FAA has tasked this contractor with managing vital communications systems around the country and that they are blissfully unaware of serious issues as they occur is negligent at best.”

Even more problematic for PASS technicians is the lack of a backup telecommunications system. Previously, to prevent full-scale failure the FAA maintained backup equipment to automatically come online to support vital systems until primary communications could be restored. However, the FAA lowered the standards and its definition of diversity for backup systems and circuits in order to award this contract to Harris. To reduce its own costs and therefore make the FTI contract more profitable, Harris Corporation merged the backup and primary paths for these systems.

“The problem we experienced in Buffalo is just the latest in a long series of failures that 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 Luke Drake, PASS regional vice president. “Harris’ track record is abysmal in providing this critical service, yet the FAA has done absolutely nothing about it.”

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. Last month, PASS sent the FAA a letter insisting that the agency address the serious issues with FTI and Harris. In a recent response, the FAA stated that it needed, “an additional 30 days to gather and review all of the information.”

According to PASS President Tom Brantley, “Asking for another 30 days to review one of the agency’s most heavily monitored programs is merely the FAA’s attempt to delay any open discussion about its failure-plagued FTI program until after the holiday travel season. Such an attempt to mislead the flying public during the busiest travel time of the year is inexcusable and highlights the FAA’s lack of true leadership.”

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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 http://www.passnational.org/.

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