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FAA: Computer system restored, delays persist

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009 12:24 PM

Federal Aviation Administration officials say a failed computer system that affected flights across the country Thursday morning is working again, but they cautioned travelers to expect residual delays.

An FAA flight map that shows delays nationwide was reporting delays at Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport of one hour to one hour and 45 minutes. Service at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had returned to normal but Newark International Airport was still showing significant delays at 10 a.m.

There were lesser delays reported at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York, Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport.

The system that failed handles basic flight plan data that must be distributed to air traffic controllers across the country before planes can take off, officials said. It does not handle radar coverage or communication with aircraft.

Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the FAA has been able to reboot the systems, located near Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

"The outage itself is over," Church said. "But by every stretch of the imagination, this was a very serious nationwide outage that will take the rest of the day to recover from."

The association identified the system as the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, a vital piece of the FAA's nationwide infrastructure. The system processes flight plans and information for every flight in the country. Church said the group was working with the FAA to pinpoint the source of the problem.

"We think it's a single-point failure that occurred somewhere in the system," he said. "One single glitch was able to shut down the entire system."

It was not clear Thursday morning whether the agency had ruled out hacking as a source of the problem.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said travelers should expect delays throughout the day.

In August 2008, a similar problem delayed hundreds of flights throughout the country, including in Baltimore and Washington. The FAA ultimately blamed a computer system that was housed in a facility near Atlanta. The system also failed in June 2007.

At the time of the 2008 failure, a backup system in Salt Lake City came online but was immediately overwhelmed. Employees had to enter flight data manually, resulting in delays throughout the afternoon. The agency resolved the backlog later in the day.

The FAA is currently asking Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize air traffic control equipment.

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