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Another ,e1/417m down the drain as air traffic system scrapped.


Elias Hazou and George Psyllides

THE GOVERNMENT is terminating the contract for the procurement and installation of the LEFCO air traffic management system, nine years after an agreement with the system's manufacturer was signed.

Communications Minister Efthymios Flourentzos yesterday told MPs of the House Watchdog Committee that the contract was being nullified, adding that the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority (CyTA) has been instructed to redeem the performance guarantee so that the state would recover its money.

LEFCO has already cost taxpayers some e1/417 million without actually working, and this after a series of trial runs.

The minister moreover revealed his intention to order a probe into why the venture to have the system installed ended in failure nine years later.

Perhaps hinting at suspicions of corruption, Flourentzos told MPs that the investigation would encompass possible criminal offences as well as disciplinary offences.

It's understood that this month a meeting will be held to decide a new round of tenders from scratch for the procurement of an air traffic management system.

The contract to buy and install LEFCO was signed in 2003 and the system was initially earmarked for a September 2005 delivery. Its delivery had been delayed time and time again over technical and compatibility issues.

Rather than buying off-the-shelf, it was decided at the time to opt for a customisable system that would be tailored to the needs of the Nicosia Flight Information Region.

CyTA had been authorised by the government to act as a subcontractor. The handling of the technical side was left to CyTA and to Civil Aviation.

Records show that over the past several years, CyTA repeatedly asked for extensions on the system's delivery deadline, with the initial contract amended to reflect that.

Flourentzos told MPs yesterday that only recently CyTA requested another six-month extension in the hopes of finally getting the system to work. But after giving the venture one last chance too many, the government finally decided it had had enough and pulled the plug.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources tell the Mail that the total cost incurred from LEFCO since 2003 is not e1/417 million, but more like e1/430 million. That's because in addition to the actual cost of the equipment, around e1/410 million was paid in overtime to local air traffic controllers who worked on testing the system.

The sources described LEFCO as being "light years ahead" of the current outdated air traffic management system, both in terms of raw computing power but also functionality. LEFCO can process far more data and covers a larger area.

But despite considerable progress having been made in recent months with regard to tweaking LEFCO's functionality and improving compatibility, the status of the system was deemed unsatisfactory.

DISY deputy Georgios Georgiou, chairman of the House Watchdog Committee, told the Mail that lawmakers were briefed in the past -- he could not recall exactly when -- that LEFCO had raised concerns with safety, in particular its accuracy in predicting collisions.

Another source confirmed this, saying the system was found to be lacking in relation to medium-term conflict detection, or MTCD. MTCD is a functionality designed to warn the controller of potential conflict between flights in his area of responsibility in a time horizon extending up to 20 minutes ahead. It is not known whether the MTCD flaw was ironed out subsequently.

As far as the current system in use is concerned, over the past two years, it has crashed several times due to information overload. Insiders give it another two years at the most to cope with ever-increasing air traffic, and stress that installing a new system is of the utmost urgency.

Air traffic control does have a safety net -- a backup system which kicks in the event of malfunction to the primary system. But the backup system, too, is dated, and has displayed some problems.

With the LEFCO saga now over, Civil Aviation has been given the green light to replace its backup system with a more up-to-date and reliable system. The new backup should be up and running in the next few months and, sources say, it will probably be "far better" than even the ageing primary system. However, the backup can only be used as such -- it will not replace the primary.

LEFCO's manufacturers are Selex Sistemi Integrati, an Italian company that is part of the Finmeccanica conglomerate. Finmeccanica is the second largest industrial group and the largest of the hi-tech industrial groups based in Italy. It operates in seven sectors: Aeronautics, Helicopters, Space, Defence and Security Electronics, Defence Systems, Energy and Transportation. It is partially owned by the Italian government, which holds about 30 per cent of Finmeccanica's shares.

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Apr 4, 2012
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