Air Traffic Control Glitch Hits Delays 14 Flights at Ontario

New telecommunications equipment designed to deliver information to controllers in a San Diego facility that handles air traffic across Southern California malfunctioned early Wednesday, delaying 14 flights out of Ontario International Airport.

The nearly two-hour outage started at the Terminal Radar Approach Control Center about 5:30 a.m. when static on a high-speed telephone line that carries radio and radar signals into the facility caused the telecom system to try to switch to a second piece of equipment; it was unable to make the connection, officials said.

Controllers in the giant San Diego air traffic control facility handle flights between airports in Southern California, from the ground to 15,000 feet. The outage was the first to occur in the region since a string of air traffic control equipment malfunctions repeatedly disrupted air service in the Southland last summer.

On Wednesday, controllers briefly lost radar contact with some flights in a 45-square-mile block of airspace that includes Ontario airport.

Controllers almost immediately switched to an alternate system until technicians could fix the problem, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the nation's complex air traffic control network. Safety was not compromised during the outage, he said.

"We lost a large number of radio frequencies, as well as the radar feed," Gregor said. "The problem has been fixed, so it won't happen again."

But technicians who maintain FAA systems said the telecommunications equipment, known as the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure, or FTI, has design flaws that have led to outages at air traffic control facilities nationwide. On Tuesday, 71 flights were delayed and 25 were diverted during an FTI system outage at an FAA center that handles flights around Salt Lake City.

"I'm concerned that there are known problems in the system that are only being exposed when there are failures," said Joan Matthiesen, a regional assistant for Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA technicians.The Harris Corp. developed and maintains the system for the FAA. It's designed to replace seven existing telecommunications systems at FAA air traffic control centers with a single network.

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