System glitch riles passengers stuck in Atlanta airport

“It’s still under investigation,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Diane Spitaliere said of the outage, which apparently started with a computer network router that shut down a key computer in Salt Lake City and spread from there.

It could take days to determine the cause, said Spitaliere, but the FAA doesn’t suspect cyber-terrorism.

The glitch didn’t pose a safety problem, but was “really an efficiency issue,” Spitaliere said.

“The good news is that the outage took place at such an early hour,” she said. If it had happened in the afternoon when air traffic is peaking, “it would have been a much worse problem,” she said.

Still, hundreds of travelers in Atlanta and elsewhere were left to fume over hours of delays as the high-tech snafu forced airlines and air traffic controllers to resort to faxes and paper forms to file and track flight plans.

AirTran Airways said it had cancelled 38 flights from Atlanta Thursday morning and delayed dozens more. A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said its delays and cancellations were “fairly minor.”

After spending the night on a sofa in Hartsfield-Jackson’s atrium, Pensacola resident Debbie Shacklett woke up to discover her scheduled 9:20 a.m. departure would be delayed five hours.

“I’m just worried I’m going to fall asleep and miss it,” Shacklett, 56, told the AJC. Her flight from Philadelphia the previous evening had arrived late, causing her to miss a midnight connector home. “Then I waited two hours for my luggage,” she said.

Aviation officials said the effects of the outage weren’t likely to affect many passengers today.

Flight plans affected

Like many of the passengers who were stuck in Atlanta, Shacklett had no idea what had caused the massive delays.

In a statement, the FAA said the outage resulted when a router on the FAA’s telecommunications system failed at about 5 a.m., shutting down a flight-plan tracking system in Salt Lake City. A similar system near Atlanta was in turn overwhelmed when flight plan data was re-routed there.

The computer system handles about 1.5 million messages daily, allowing both commercial and private pilots to file flight plans that are automatically forwarded to flight controllers in the United States and overseas. The system also alerts pilots to weather and airport updates such as current wind speeds and directions.

Delays resulted as airlines had to fax flight plans and flight controllers at airport towers and regional control centers had to manually type flight plans into their computers.

The FAA said it had its communications network running again by 9 a.m., but not before it had affected many flights in the eastern United States, particularly at major airports in Atlanta and New York.

This year, the FAA replaced the aging computers that had run its flight-plan tracking system after similar high-profile outages in 2007 and 2008 caused headaches for thousands of air travelers across the nation.

Thursday’s incident affected the telecommunications system that connects that new equipment and other pieces of the FAA flight control operation together.

Cost cutting cited

The FAA contracted out the design and maintenance of that system to Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. in 2002 as part of its campaign to modernize its air traffic system.

A Harris Corp. spokesperson did not return a telephone call for comment.

A spokesman for the air traffic controllers union said that such network shutdowns, while rare, show that the FAA’s cost cutting is making the system more vulnerable.

“You really need more redundancy in the system,” said Doug Church, with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “One event has the potential to bring down the whole system.”

He said the communications network, known as the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure or FTI, also carries signals for radar and radio communications to aircraft, but on separate lines.

“We were fortunate today that those systems were not affected, because air traffic safety could have been impacted,” he said.

Church said a nationwide shutdown of radar or radio service would be “highly unlikely.” Still, he said, while outages affecting the paperwork side of tracking flights have been more common, local and regional air traffic controllers have sometimes lost radar or radio service.

On Sept. 25, 2007, the FAA’s Memphis center lost most of its radio frequencies and some radar service when the FTI system failed, he said.

The FAA responded by rerouting aircraft around the blacked-out Memphis center’s zone, which stretches from Oklahoma to Alabama and southern Illinois to Mississippi.

“That was a far more serious situation,” said Church. No mishaps occurred, but significant flight delays resulted because aircraft “had to take the long way around,” he said.

Mike Morris contributed to this report

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