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Problems may delay new air traffic system

WASHINGTON — New computers crucial to modernizing the U.S. air traffic control system have run into serious problems and may not be fully operational by the end of this year when the current system is supposed to be replaced, a government watchdog said Wednesday.

The $2.1 billion computer system has misidentified aircraft and had trouble processing radar information, Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department's inspector general, told a House panel. Air traffic controllers at a Federal Aviation Administration radar center in Salt Lake City, where the new computers are being tested, also have had difficulty transferring responsibility for planes to other controllers, he said.

Scovel warned that if the problems continue they could delay the FAA's NextGen program to replace the current air traffic control system, which is based on World War II-era radar technology, with a new system that's based on GPS technology.

The troubled computer system, called En Route Automation Modernization, is designed to handle aircraft flying at higher altitudes between airports, rather than planes taking off or landing. While not specifically part of the NextGen program, it is a crucial underpinning.

The FAA had planned to have ERAM operational in Salt Lake City by December 2009 and at the agency's 20 other radar centers that handle en route traffic by the end of this year. That's when the FAA's contract with IBM to maintain the present computer system expires. The present system relies on a unique computer language called Jovial that is understood by a dwindling number of technicians.

However, deployment of the system in Salt Lake City has been delayed six months, and it is unlikely that the FAA will be able to have ERAM fully working in the 20 other radar centers by the end of this year, the inspector general said.

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