A System Burp

There were news reports that an air traffic control computer failure in Atlanta on Friday caused cancellations and flight delays along the US East Coast. The Atlanta FAA computer processes pilots' flights plans and sends them to air-traffic controllers â'' when it failed, the Salt Lake City center took over, but it became overloaded and temporarily failed as well.

The Atlanta system failure lasted only from 0657 to just before 1100, but the effects, coupled with the effects of the thunder storms that moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, compounded the trouble. Residual effects were still being felt into this morning.

This is the third major computer problem in the past several months. On Friday, 25 May, at the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the mapping software in the San Diego Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility used by controllers to guide flights for 21 airports in the Southern California region, failed for about an hour when staff attempted to update the maps.

Then on early Monday morning 5 March, there was a software failure in the ATOP (Advanced Technologies and Ocean Procedures) system that air traffic controllers in New York use to guide aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean. About two dozen flights were affected.

Until the FAAâ''s latest air traffic control (ATC) modernization effort called NextGen is complete â'' and that is not scheduled until 2025 according to current projects (and hopes) â'' and the current fragility of the current ATC computer and radar systems, one can expect more and more of these failures to occur. A complete system meltdown is probable in the next few years if there is a major computer or radar failure on a major travel weekend that happens during a spate of bad weather spanning several regions of the US. Just hope you arenâ''t flying when that happens.

This morning there were several articles on the proposed FAA NextGen system. One appeared in the LA Times here, the Boston Globe here and the Wall Street Journal (subscription) here.


Risk Factor

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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City