Computer malfunction halts air traffic

June 30, 2008 4:46:46 PM PDT
There was a mess in the skies Monday throughout the eastern seaboard, and the ripple affect was felt halfway across the country.The computer system that automatically controls air traffic shut down, forcing controllers to direct hundreds of flights manually.

It did not go smoothly.

Tthe computer system, to put it mildly, is outdated. Even the FAA admits the software is impeding its ability to handle air traffic. Monday, on a busy summer morning, that system fizzled out for a time, leaving controllers without vital information on their radar screens.

And hours after the computer glitch was fixed, its impact was still being felt.

Hundreds of planes headed to New York from around the country had to be grounded during the morning's 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. rush, while technicians tried to get the main air traffic control computer working again.

The computer, known as the host, allows controllers to coordinate flights between New York's two major air traffic radar facilities. When the computer failed, vital flight information essentially disappeared from radar screens.

"Their destination, departure point and the type of aircraft, which is all information we need to move them through the airspace," controller and union representative Dean Iacopelli said.

The FAA had to stop all departures at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro until controllers could begin using land lines to communicate to each other and manually hand off departing aircraft to the higher altitude radar center. And the loss of automation in New York grounded flights thousands of miles away.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer: "Does this have a ripple effect throughout the country?"
Iacopelli: "Oh certainly. Whatever happens in New York definitely has an effect throughout the United States."

It's not the first time a computer glitch has delayed New York-bound planes. An FAA document details how the host computer software is based on 30-year-old architecture that has reached the end of its service life. The agency has started testing new automation technology, but New York isn't scheduled to get it until sometime in 2011. Meanwhile, passengers will likely face more computer meltdown delays.

The FAA says there is no backup system. When the computer malfunctions, controllers input the information manually. The FAA also says its technical operation group will be investigating the problem to find out why it happened.


STORY BY: The Investigators' Jim Hoffer