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Flying Blind: Unions Say FAA Radars Could Fail

The $2.4 billion FTI network relays radar data and other information to air traffic control centers and other vital operational centers around the country.

Add this to the woes hitting the aviation industry.

Unions representing air traffic controllers and air safety specialists say a new, $2.4 billion telecom system built to feed radar data to the nation's air traffic control towers is unreliable and makes flying less safe.

The new system, called the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) network, relays radar data and other information to air traffic control centers and other vital operational centers around the country. It was formally launched this week by the Federal Aviation Administration and is now in use at more than 3,800 FAA facilities.

But union officials say the system was built on the cheap, lacks sufficient backup systems and is unreliable.

"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," said a joint statement released Wednesday by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

"Because FTI transmits voice, data and radar information to controllers, any interruption puts air travelers at great risk," the statement said.

The unions blamed a March 30 radar outage at the air traffic control center in Augusta, GA on the new network. They said it took the contractor that built the network for the FAA, Harris Corporation, eight hours to dispatch a technician.

"It's absolutely ridiculous that the response to this outage took so long to resolve," said PASS regional vice president Dave Spero, in a statement. Harris and FAA officials did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

FTI has been in development since 2002. The FAA said it provides a unified network for voice and data communications across all of its operations. The agency insists it's more reliable, and hence safer, than an older system that relied on a patchwork of disparate systems from numerous vendors.

Safety questions about the FAA's new telecom system are the latest sign that it's going to be a rough summer for the aviation industry and its customers.

American Airlines has canceled more than 2,000 flights this week to perform emergency inspections on wiring aboard its MD-80 aircraft. Other airlines that operate the aircraft have followed suit.

The problems are not confined to the U.S.

British Airways this month was forced to cancel dozens of flights into and out of its new Terminal 5 building at London's Heathrow airport following the failure of what was billed as a state-of-the-art, computerized baggage handling system.

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