Flight Delays Caused by Computer Failure, FAA Says

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Federal Aviation Administration blamed a computer breakdown for delaying hundreds of flights yesterday throughout the country, including Baltimore and Washington.

The computer system, housed in a facility near Atlanta, failed shortly after 1:25 p.m., FAA officials said. The system handles basic flight plan data that must be distributed to air traffic controllers around the country before planes take off.

So far, the FAA has estimated that "hundreds" of flights were affected by the failure yesterday. The problem was not a "safety issue," the FAA said. A spokeswoman said the agency never lost the ability to communicate with aircraft. A computer failure last week apparently caused similar delays.

The glitch came as a new blow to the FAA, which has been getting extensive criticism for the nation's chronic flight delays. The agency, which is asking Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize air traffic control equipment, said it was too early to give a specific cause for yesterday's failure, although it ruled out hacking.

After the failure in Atlanta yesterday, a backup system in Salt Lake City came online to pick up the slack but immediately became overwhelmed, the FAA said. Employees then had to enter flight data manually, resulting in delays throughout the afternoon. By early evening, the FAA reported that the Salt Lake City system had resolved its backlog and was operating normally.

Late yesterday the agency said computer engineers were still working to put the Atlanta system back into operation.

"It looks like we are slowly starting to dig out of this," Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer for FAA's air traffic organization, told reporters on a 5 p.m. conference call.

According to an internal FAA document, the system, called the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, crashed on Thursday and caused in 134 departure delays. The Salt Lake City system also took over but had problems with the high queue level, the document said. The system also failed in June 2007.

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the computer problem showed that the agency was too focused on deploying new technology rather than maintenance of current equipment.

"The FAA is doing things on the cheap when it comes to technology and infrastructure," he said.

Flights in Baltimore and Washington were hit with delays of 75 minutes or more. But Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said the problem didn't cause widespread cancellations.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International airport took the brunt of the computer failure with 40 planes backed up at about 5 p.m. At one point yesterday, the glitch caused delays of 90 minutes at Chicago's Midway International Airport and hour-long delays in Charlotte. Boston's Logan International airport experienced 45-minute delays.

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Brian Krebs contributed to this report.

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