BREAKDOWNS in the nation's archaic air-traffic-control system are prompting concern throughout the industry as they threaten to delay flights, cost airlines and passengers millions of dollars, and jeopardize safety until a new system comes on line in 1999.
A computer outage at the country's busiest air-traffic-control center in Aurora, Ill., on Tuesday - the fifth at the facility since May - grounded planes across the nation and prevented an automatic alarm from warning controllers of two small aircraft converging near Moline, Ill.
Longer, more frequent breakdowns are anticipated as a dwindling number of government technicians struggle to patch up the fragile, 1960s-vintage air-traffic computers with hard-to-obtain spare parts, the officials and technicians say.
"It's getting really crazy," says Wanda Geist, one of 10 technicians who worked all day Tuesday to repair the main, 25-year-old IBM 9020e computer and keep a backup system functioning in Aurora. The center, one of 20 nationwide, governs about 3 million commercial flights a year in a 120,000-square-mile area spanning six Midwestern states.
Air-traffic controllers must rely on obsolete equipment because Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contractors have fallen years behind in designing the complex computer software needed for a new system. FAA officials say the new equipment will not be installed until 1999, three years later than planned.
Last month, prompted by computer failures, the FAA approved a stopgap measure: a $65 million project to install five temporary replacement computers in the Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Washington, and Dallas centers beginning in October 1997.
The FAA said Tuesday that it aims to accelerate the project, but a spokesman …