DECEMBER 26, 1995
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The crowded skies around the world's busiest airport, Chicago's O'Hare, keep air traffic controllers working at a hectic base. It gets even more hectic when the equipment fails, and it does fail. On November 1st, computers at the FAA Control Center 30 miles away went down for the seventh time this year. So, once again, a national ground stop was called for all flights in to and out of O'Hare. This time one- to two-hour delays quickly built up.
KATHY CRAIG, Passenger: Well, we got here a little after 3 or a little after 4, it's supposed to leave at 5:05.
KATHY CRAIG: Yeah. But it's leaving, well, at 7 something, 7:15, I guess.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago's exasperated mayor called the continuing computer breakdowns outrageous.
MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY, Chicago: And I told people that your sewer is broken and I'll fix it three years later, they will not accept that answer, and I really believe, I think if they can put a person on the Moon, I don't know why they can't correct this. I mean, this is becoming a major problem.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And it's not just a major problem in Chicago. Control centers in Cleveland, New York, Fort Worth, Oakland, and Washington, all had equipment failures last summer. Airline trade groups say the delays cost the airlines close to $3 billion a year, yet, FAA administrator David Hinson continues to insist that the air traffic control system is safe.
DAVID HINSON, FAA Administrator: When we have an interruption at a center--and there are many kinds of interruptions--there's a loss of electrical power, or there's a loss of a computer or something of that nature--the system is designed to be fail safe. So when we have an interruption, we do not necessarily have a safety problem. What we lose is our relative efficiency. We slow traffic down, or even stop traffic, if we have to, but it does not become unsafe.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There were no safety-related incidents when computers went down on November 1st. But when computers failed on September 12th, a distracted controller guided two planes into the same air space. An on-board alert system alerted the pilots, and the planes missed each other by just over 3 miles. Controller and union vice president Ron Downen.
RON DOWNEN, Air Traffic Controller: The controller made a mistake, but it was enhanced by he didn't have anything else to help him out equipment-wise.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Because you were on the back-up system.
RON DOWNEN: We were on the back-up system at that time. Had we been on our normal system, I'm confident to be able to say that that incident would not have happened.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Downen controls airplanes at the Chicago control center in Aurora, Illinois. The center controls traffic in to and out of O'Hare, as well as traffic in a 120,000 square mile, five- state area over the nation's mid-section. It handles more than 3 million operations a year and has the most failures of any center this year. Controller Downen says the equipment break-downs have been a nightmare.
RON DOWNEN: You tense up. You get a tight stomach, perhaps a little bit of a dry mouth. You swallow, and you do your job, because you have to do it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When the computers go down, there is an immediate back-up, ironically named the DARC System, an acronym for the Discreet Access Radar Channel System. When the DARC System switches on, there is not much difference on the scopes to the untrained eye, but Downen says he loses important information. He can no longer communicate electronically with O'Hare or anywhere else. He must use the phone to call O'Hare controllers to tell when there incoming and outgoing planes are. That's why air traffic must be slowed down. Just as disturbing, he says, is what happens to the computer screen next to the scopes.
RON DOWNEN: If I go to DARC, I lose everything, no capabilities to get that up on my back-up system whatsoever.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When the computer outages strike the Chicago center, O'Hare immediately feels the effect. Tower controller and local union vice president Craig Burzych.
CRAIG BURZYCH, Air Traffic Controller: They have airplanes in the air that they can no longer see, the Chicago center does, so they will shut us off on departures. They are busy trying to get those airplanes to O'Hare without using radar. They stop our departures. Those departures still come off the gates. They want to leave the gates and get away from the gates so that the incoming flights can still get into the gates and de-board, get rid of the passengers, and we are forced to take those airplanes and hide 'em on the airport to line 'em up, and sit 'em somewhere. And it just creates a very heavy work load for the controllers, and just in a very stressful environment. It makes a job harder than I can possibly tell you.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: FAA employees agree. The major reason behind the equipment failure, old equipment. Five centers still use the IBM 9020E. It was installed 25 years ago at the center in Aurora. Each big old mainframe has only 128 kilobytes of memory. A typical laptop computer has 70 times that amount. Even most digital watches have more capacity. And FAA technical supervisor Tim Jenkins says the 9020E's are very tough to repair.
TIM JENKINS, FAA Technician: And I have multiple problems, then you got to figure that makes it even tougher.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how often are they failing due to age?
TIM JENKINS: We're getting--we used to get say like, say five failures a month. We're probably getting closer to ten, so they're kind of like doubling.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Technician and union president Wanda Geist is having the same problems repairing the scopes that display the information the 9020E's compute. The PVD, or Plane View Display equipment, is over 30 years old, so old vacuum tubes are still used.
WANDA GEIST, FAA Technician: This is our focus amp, and this is what causes the PVD to focus, and there's one in every display on the floor.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So this is a vacuum tube?
WANDA GEIST: Yes.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It's mighty old technology, right?
WANDA GEIST: Yeah. 50's, the technology goes back to the 50's
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Geist says it can take three to six months to get spare parts, if you can get them at all. Sometimes the cannibalize parts from other PVD's, but with only six spares, that causes more problems.
WANDA GEIST: When we talk to air traffic and find out which operational position is least important and steal from that position to put in the more important operational position.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So they're down a scope.
WANDA GEIST: Right.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The FAA did take steps to modernize the equipment. IBM was awarded a $4 billion contract in the 1980's to design a system to replace the computers at all 20 air traffic control centers. Known as the Advanced Automation System, or AAS, it was supposed to be installed this year. But when David Hinson became the administrator in 1993, he took a hard look at what had happened to the AAS system.
DAVID HINSON: And what I found was a program that was late, not delivering the technology in the timely fashion that was promised to be delivered, and with a potential cost overrun of one to two billion dollars.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So despite the fact that $3.4 billion in five years had already been spent, Hinson dumped the program. Lorel Corporation now has the contract to develop a scaled-down version of the AAS, but that won't be ready until 1999. Following the summer outages, the FAA did announce a $65 million interim system, but even that system will take almost two years to develop. The delays frustrate Denis Burke, the manager at the Chicago center.
DENIS BURKE, FAA Manager: The issue is software. Hardware can be bought off the shelf to replace the 9020E. The software required for our program that runs a hard-core memory system, real-time computing, was so well down originally that they don't want to change that language, so they have to write an entire program to communicate with today's technology which is going to take 'em close to twelve months before they can get out in the field and test it, another six months before the testing is complete, and we can put it online.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: O'Hare will also get new equipment. A brand new tower is scheduled to open next October. A new Tracon center, or radar room, will open at the same time. But here too there are software problems. Right now, controllers handwrite information about planes' altitudes and separation on paper strips. The strips are then dropped through a tube to controllers in the Tracon center at the base of tower. But the new Tracon center is in Elgin, 20 miles away, and despite five years of lead time, the FAA still has not come up with a system to replace paper strips and a gravity tube.
CRAIG BURZYCH: I can go home and turn on my PC computer, sign on American Online, get on the Internet, and I can instantaneously talk to somebody in California, in New York, or for that matter, anywhere in the world, but, yet, in the FAA, we are having a problem transferring basic information from O'Hare Tower to a point 40 miles away from this facility. I just don't understand.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There is a reason why the FAA has had so many problems buying and developing up-to-date technology, says the FAA administrator in charge of all facilities and equipment in the Chicago area.
GARY DUFFY, FAA Manager: The cumbersome, archaic procurement regulations that we're bound to keep us from keeping up with, or with private industry in their ability to respond to changing technology. Technology is changing so fast in this day and age that in order for the FAA or any government agency, for that matter, to keep up with it, we have to be able to respond to that technology the way private industry does.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Senate is now considering a proposal to allow the FAA to operate more like a business and to exempt it from federal procurement procedures. A bipartisan House bill would make the FAA an independent agency, no longer part of the Department of Transportation. That would mean funding for the FAA would no longer be counted against the deficit.
DAVID HINSON: As a result, we're fully funded without the annual debate, and we will have the resources we need.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Without those changes, Hinson says the FAA could be facing a 30 percent budget shortfall by 2002. At the same time, air traffic will have almost doubled. The administrator says the skies would still be safe, but he says the FAA would have to be restructured and would play a significantly smaller role in civil aviation.