The computer system used by air traffic controllers at the major New York metropolitan airports broke down tonight, and controllers said the resulting confusion led to a number of "near misses."

The computer system used to identify planes on the radar screens failed at 7:22 p.m. EDT, during the evening's peak air traffic period.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said the system appeared to be back to normal just before midnight. Asked about possible hazards at the time of the failures, however, he said there were "none whatsoever."

Before the computer broke down completely, it began feeding the controllers erroneous information, said Paul Amato, president of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

One of the errors, Amato said, involved incorrect information about the location of a small aircraft the controllers were tracking.

"It went through the path of six or seven very large jets before we discovered the error," he said. "Right after that, the computer failed totally. We were lucky tonight."

The computer, located at JFK Airport, serves Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports as well as assorted smaller satellite airports in the area.

"The failure resulted initially in confusion, several possible close encounters of aircraft, and increased the possibility of a major air disaster," Amato said.

The computer system has been a long-standing source of contention between the controllers and the airport administrations.

Once the failure was discovered, Amato said, the controllers began to compensate for it.