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Outages Highlight Internal FAA Rift

October 03, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

When a string of air traffic control equipment malfunctions repeatedly disrupted air service in Southern California this summer, congressional leaders and airport executives questioned whether systemic problems were to blame.

The failures, which occurred in July at a Palmdale facility that handles the region's high-altitude traffic and in July and August at Los Angeles International Airport, cost airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars and inconvenienced passengers around the world.

The outages prompted a federal inquiry by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general. The Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the nation's air traffic control network, says it has turned over documents pertaining to the failures to the inspector general.

As the inquiry continues, Times interviews with technicians who work on the systems, controllers who use them and FAA management revealed a deepening internal quarrel about how the complex equipment should be maintained.

Technicians argue that a decade-old shift in the FAA's maintenance philosophy is partly to blame for outages in Southern California this summer. Formerly, the agency would allow technicians to spend time getting familiar with systems, so when something went wrong, they spotted it quickly. Today, the agency employs an approach that allows it to cut staff by relying in part on remote monitoring and on-call technicians, and to lengthen maintenance intervals, technicians say.

FAA officials say staffing and maintenance were not factors. Rather, the problems were caused by technical glitches in each system and are in no way linked to one another, they said.

"It was a remarkable piece of bad luck that we had these things fail for different reasons," FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a telephone interview. "All you can do is focus intently to address each and every one of them. It's not as though this points to a bigger problem."

The system outages in Southern California reflect a growing debate about how well the FAA is balancing modernizing the nation's aging air traffic control network with maintaining sensitive equipment used to direct thousands of flights a day through the country's airspace -- all with dwindling appropriations from Congress.

"There's so much pressure on them to show that they're modernizing the system to increase capacity that they're marginalizing the importance of keeping the infrastructure they have now," said Ray Baggett, Western region vice president for Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA technicians.

The testy relationship between the FAA and its technicians is likely to be strained further in the next few years as the agency makes crucial decisions about whether to keep its existing system or buy new equipment, said John Hensman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's International Center for Air Transportation.

"There are two cultures in the FAA -- the guys in the Air Traffic Organization who are trying to make it operate more like a business," Hensman said. "And the guys at the maintenance level, who pride themselves on the service they provide. They don't really care about the business case."

The divergence of opinion within the FAA about how air traffic control equipment is being maintained comes into sharp focus with a review of the summer's most disruptive glitch in Southern California. It occurred July 18, when a backup power system at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale failed, leaving controllers briefly unable to track aircraft or talk to pilots.

The outage, which affected airports across the Southland and delayed 348 flights, was caused by a faulty circuit board in a system that acts as a surge protector to protect sensitive equipment from power spikes.

Technicians say they had had to postpone maintenance on the backup power equipment because only one specialist was on duty when two were required to disassemble the complex unit.

"It does take us longer to do the maintenance because of the lack of staffing," said Tony Gilmore, a technician and union representative at the Palmdale center, which handles high-altitude flights over Southern California and much of Nevada and Arizona.

But detailed maintenance logs do not show preventive maintenance was deferred, said Steven Zaidman, vice president of technical operations at the FAA's Air Traffic Organization.

Technicians also allege the backup power system, known as the Air Route Traffic Control Center Critical and Essential Power Systems, failed in part because the FAA ordered them to remove one of five switches in the surge protection system to save money.

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