FAA deflects criticism about its contingency plans

The
agency will spend $142.2 million in fiscal 1999, according to figures it submitted to the
Office of Management and Budget last month.


Both the air traffic controllers union and the Transportation Department inspector
general have criticized the Federal Aviation Administration’s plans for responding to
possible computer-related service disruptions around Jan. 1, 2000.


After reviewing his department’s quarterly report to the Office of Management and
Budget, Deputy Inspector General Raymond DeCarli said last month that year 2000
contingency plans for all operating administrations within FAA were too vague and
ill-defined.


In most cases, he said, contingency plans submitted to OMB were simply statements that
operations would be handled manually. DeCarli asked the FAA and other Transportation
agencies to go back and identify specific actions to be taken in case of system failures.


The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing air traffic
controllers, has been an even harsher critic of FAA’s year 2000 contingency plans to
date.


In a memo dated June 11 and signed by NATCA members Daniel Thorsen and Chris Monaldi,
the air traffic controllers said FAA’s current contingency plans provide “no
realistic levels of operational readiness.” The memo referred to them as “an
administrative gesture as best.”


As recently as last month, FAA and NATCA were still in talks about how to deal with
year 2000-related service disruptions.


“Our biggest concern is contingency plans,” said Bill Blackmer, NATCA
director for safety and technology. “If something gets missed and something breaks,
how do we continue to work with what we have left?”


Until the FAA comes up with a national plan, most facilities have fallen back on local
contingency plans and emergency operations, “some developed way back in the ’50s
when we thought Russia might drop nukes on us,” Blackmer said.


Another concern of NATCA is getting controllers refresher training in the use of backup
systems for keeping planes separated. “If we lose the backup system, we have a third
way to control airplanes, and that is with flight strips—a piece of paper on every
airplane,” Blackmer said. “We’d use times and fixes to keep [planes]
apart.”


FAA officials said they will need until Dec. 31 to develop a nationwide contingency
plan for the 470 air traffic control towers, 177 terminal radar approach control
facilities, 21 en route centers and 100 flight service stations that the FAA operates.


The FAA is responsible for 34,000 pieces of maintainable equipment and for 200,000
take-offs and landings a day in about 18,000 airports.


In its report last month to the Office of Management and Budget, the FAA’s Air
Traffic Services organization reported that 157 of its 255 mission-critical systems were
year 2000-ready but that 60 systems were still in the shop.


Two contingency planning documents from the General Accounting Office are helping the
agency to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. One is the Year
2000 Computing Crisis: An Assessment Guide. The other is titled, Year 2000 Business
Continuity and Contingency Planning Guidelines.

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