Air traffic control glitches highlighted by two labor unions

Unions, FAA at odds on IT problems during contract talks

Technical problems with air traffic control systems across the U.S. that lose radar images of aircraft or show multiple "ghosts" of planes are being criticized by two labor unions that represent air traffic controllers and radar system technicians.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the Professional Airways System Specialists (PASS) unions have been loudly critical of the Federal Aviation Administration recently, charging that the agency hasn't been maintaining or upgrading its air traffic control systems to keep it safe. The NATCA is in the midst of negotiations with the FAA on a new contract, while PASS and the agency are at a two-year impasse on their new contract and have not yet begun negotiations.

Late last month, the NATCA issued a press release that described technical problems with radar systems that were erroneously dropping airplanes off radar screens at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center around the nation's capital. Other recent incidents include radar, computer and systems problems in Denver, Boston and elsewhere, according to the group.

Doug Church, a spokesman for the 14,500-member air traffic controllers union in Washington, said the problems stem from FAA mismanagement and a "system that's breaking down."

"You're going to see more of this because the FAA has resisted modernization for so long," Church said.

Instead of upgrading and maintaining air traffic control equipment on a regular basis, he said, the FAA waits for systems to fail and then fixes the problems, causing delays for airline passengers and raising questions about safety. "We need leadership that's going to come out and say, 'We have problems,' " he said. "They've allowed the system to be degraded, and now they're paying the price."

Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the Washington Center system problems and other technical problems around the country are separate issues that aren't evidence of systemic problems.

Problems at Denver's air traffic control center earlier this month occurred when local data wasn't properly entered into the radar system as part of a software upgrade, she said. After the upgrade was completed, data for some flights was disappearing from the radar screens, so technicians had to revert back to the original software until they found the problem. The next day, the system was upgraded with the correct data, and the software worked as expected, Brown said. "We've done it elsewhere across the country seamlessly," she said.

In Boston, a faulty radar antenna caused ghost images of airplanes to appear on radar screens, creating flight delays that began over the weekend. The defective part has been replaced and the systems are now operating normally, Brown said.

At the Washington facility, the data problems occurred several times in late September, as flights on the radar screens appeared to "jump." The problem is believed to be caused by overlapping radars and is still being resolved through an ongoing radar upgrade project, Brown said.

The issue in the disputes over the FAA and its technology are being magnified by the two unions because of the strains of ongoing labor contract issues, Brown said. "We're in contract negotiations," she said. "We think the technology is adequate, but we're constantly upgrading the equipment that's available. We're investing continuously in the system."

Dale Kettring, a spokesman for Washington-based PASS, said that despite FAA claims that its technology is adequate, much of the equipment inside air traffic control centers around the nation is outdated and not properly maintained. "They have a tendency to break after they get so old," he said, and some equipment has been in use since 1975.

Kettring said the technology issues have been raised by PASS for more than seven years but the FAA has not adequately responded. "We told the FAA that there are inefficiencies in these systems," he said. "They need to spend money on the right stuff. They need people to advise them on what the right stuff is."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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