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2 Giants Wrestle for Pact to Make the Skies Safer : Air Traffic Control System Obsolete; Hughes and IBM Vie to Design a New One

February 08, 1987|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

Abattle of brains, financial muscle and corporate gamesmanship is being waged by two industrial leaders of high technology for a multibillion-dollar federal award to build a public works project of critical national importance.

Hughes Aircraft and International Business Machines are preparing to submit fixed-price bids later this year to develop and produce a new U.S. air traffic control system, a formidable undertaking that could easily grow into a program worth $5 billion to $10 billion over its lifetime.

The contest has matched the corporate egos of two institutions that have played major roles in the advancement of technology over the last four decades but have seldom been in direct competition. It also squares off for the first time the enormous resources of IBM against those of General Motors, the parent of Hughes.

The competition for the right to build the Federal Aviation Administration's Advanced Automation System, or AAS, is being fought on technical ground but with strategies meant to weaken the opponent and gain small advantages by surprise. The ultimate winner will seize a unique opportunity for leadership of a huge market that is expected to reach far beyond the one-time FAA award.

"It is the major growth area in the company," Albert Wheelon, Hughes' chairman-elect, said in a recent interview. "We believe the FAA program will be the bellwether for a whole new round of these things around the world. The FAA job is big, but it is more so in terms of where this leads."

AAS will be a nationwide network of computers and video displays that will allow controllers to direct and navigate aircraft traffic more efficiently and safely. The two firms are designing the system under "cost-plus" type contracts that were issued in August, 1984, and have surpassed $400 million in combined funding for research and development.

They have also enlisted teams of subcontractors for some of the specialized tasks in the program, moves that have joined the East Coast's Raytheon with IBM and West Coast Lockheed's Sanders unit with Hughes.

"These really are the premier combinations of companies to be going after this program," said Leland F. Page, the FAA's director of the Advanced Automation System program. "Both companies have outstanding credentials. The corporate officers at the highest levels are committed to the program and have given it a high priority." And the high priority assigned to AAS is not limited to the contractors. The increasingly urgent need for a complete overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system is broadly accepted by Congress and the FAA.

Nonetheless, the program is already mired deep in the sort of political controversy that only a big aerospace program can generate. It has experienced schedule delays, cost overruns, acrimonious congressional hearings, a series of investigative reports, finger-pointing and wide-ranging mutual distrust among some government institutions. It could be just business as usual in Washington--or an inauspicious start to a risky venture.

"I am not sure we could avoid finger-pointing regardless of how good the system is," remarked Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee.

Still in Its Infancy

The new computerized system that has created such hand-wringing is only in its infancy. When mature, it will be the centerpiece of the FAA's effort to come to grips with the explosive growth of the nation's air traffic. The existing FAA system at 20 regional control facilities around the nation, built originally by IBM, is a patchwork of modifications and additions over the past two decades. It is based on obsolete 1960s computer technology, using vacuum tubes and drum-type memory devices.

"A desktop personal computer is more powerful than some of these machines at the FAA centers," Mineta said. "It's ludicrous."

The mainframe computers that operate the system went out of production at IBM long ago and now break down with alarming frequency. Last month, for example, the computer system in the Denver region, which controls traffic over the nation's heartland, was out of operation for a week, the longest such breakdown in history, according to the General Accounting Office.

Even when it operates, the current IBM system is swamped by the increasing traffic. "When this system was put in in the late 1960s, it was built to operate at 50% capacity, and if it operated at more than that, its performance would begin to degrade," Mineta observed. "We are now at about 90% capacity."

What is more, the system lacks the capabilities that modern equipment would have to reduce the work load of the air traffic controller, a job that all too often takes workers to the limits of their psychological endurance. The video display technology at any game arcade is superior to what the FAA has now, experts say.

Telephone Analogy

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