- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

The Federal Aviation Administration's computer software in Herndon that monitors thousands of flights nationwide is headed for an overhaul in the latest counterterrorism effort.

The FAA has told computer programmers to figure out a way to alert controllers as soon as an airplane veers off course or is involved in any other kind of irregularity that might indicate a hijacking.

"What we're looking for is the relationship between what was filed for the flight plan and the actual flight track," said Michael Harrison, FAA's director of architecture and system engineering.

The dilemma is determining which airplanes have fallen into the hands of terrorists and should prompt a response from jet fighters, and which are encountering routine problems, such as faulty communications equipment, turbulence or inattentive pilots.

"You have to ask the question: Was it a system failure or an intentional act?" Mr. Harrison said. "If they continue on the flight plan, we're not going to get too excited. If they do a 180 [degree turn] on us, we're going to go into action."

The four commercial airliners that terrorists hijacked and crashed on Sept. 11 deviated from their assigned flight paths. The hijackers turned off the transponders that allowed air-traffic controllers to easily track the airplanes and ceased radio communications.

The FAA never intended its Strategic Command Center near Washington Dulles International Airport to be a front-line defense against terrorism. The Sept. 11 attacks on America made FAA officials rethink their vulnerabilities.

Mr. Harrison said reworking the FAA's Enhanced Traffic Management System would be worthwhile even if all terrorist threats disappeared. The automated alerts to air-traffic controllers of flight deviations will allow faster emergency responses for even unintended mechanical failures, he said.

"We'll also look for other things," Mr. Harrison said. "Let's say the pilot had a sudden decompression and a rapid descent. That is not a normal operation. The advantage of any kind of improvement in quality and safety is to benefit the traveler."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, FAA and Defense Department strategists joined forces to try to answer the question: "If Sept. 11 happened again today, what would be different?" said FAA spokesman Fraser Jones.

The FAA applied for and received a supplemental funding grant for the computer and radar upgrades. Government agencies use supplemental funding grants to pay for special projects not included in their annual budgets.

FAA officials refused to disclose the amount they were awarded. However, they did say the money would pay for "conformance monitoring technologies" that immediately would notify air-traffic controllers and the North American Air Defense Command of threatening irregularities.

In addition, the FAA and Defense Department agreed to exchange personnel to handle aviation emergencies. Military personnel now are stationed at air-traffic control sites in case jet fighters must be summoned, potentially to shoot down commercial aircraft before hijackers can reach their targets and destroy buildings.

"If a controller sees an unusual or suspicious incident, previously they would be required to notify their supervisor," Mr. Jones said. "Now there's this new direct communication link."

The reworking of the FAA's computer software appears to be an infusion of money under the federal government's funding for the war on terrorism.

The emergency funding, and a larger annual military budget, are expected to more than double federal spending in the Washington area next year, said Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University economist who studies local markets.

Federal spending that normally stays around $4 billion a year could reach $8.5 billion, much of it for the Northern Virginia high-tech industry, Mr. Fuller said.

"I took a look at what happened during the Gulf war," he said. "You should see what kind of spending goes on here."

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