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Small hitch for FAA turns into giant mess for fliers

CHICAGO - When a computer system that distributes flight plans nationwide came rolling to a halt this week because of a software glitch, so did airplanes on tarmacs from Orlando to Chicago. The ensuing delays drove home just how easily an apparently isolated problem can trigger network-wide disarray in the country's aging air traffic control system.

'It's aggravating to us ... over 600 flights were affected - which is about 60,000 people - because of one computer glitch,' Hank Krakowski, chief operations officer for the U.S. air traffic system, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Most flights around the country were back to normal Wednesday, a day after problems with the National Airspace Data Interchange Network computer south of Atlanta.

Those problems occurred during routine software work on the computer, one of just two in the country that play the vital role of distributing flight plans to dozens of controllers who monitor planes as they fly to their destinations, Krakowski said. The other is in Salt Lake City.

The Georgia center processes flight plans for the eastern half of the U.S, and Salt Lake City normally handles the western half.

'We were doing a normal, daily software load that we do a couple times a day,' Krakowski explained. 'As we were doing the software load, something got corrupted in the file, and it brought the system down.'

The data usually handled by the Atlanta-area computer automatically switched over to the one in Salt Lake City. Then the Utah system became overwhelmed by the sudden surge of information - and could no longer process all the flight plans being filed and refiled.

No flight plans equals huge problems.

Unless they receive all plans for all the more than 6,000 planes in the air at any one time, controllers don't know what route planes are taking or where and when they intend to land - posing grave safety hazards.

In a 24-hour, period the FAA processes more than 300,000 flight plans in the U.S., according to the FAA.

If computers stop distributing flight plans, airport controllers stop giving takeoff clearance to planes whose plans haven't been given out. That's what happened Tuesday afternoon.

The Atlanta computer system, which is about 20 years old, was already scheduled to be replaced later this year with a system with far greater memory, Krakowski said.

Even so, he said, Tuesday's problems illustrate that piecemeal upgrades of the air traffic network - which the FAA says has at least 40,000 pieces of equipment - are not good enough.

The FAA has been pushing for a long-term modernization that would include replacing the current method of tracking planes, which uses World War II-era radar technology, by switching to a satellite-guided system that equips planes with GPS.

'This is one of the largest project management challenges the U.S. government has had since we put somebody on the moon,' he said. He called Tuesday's glitch 'the poster child' for the FAA's modernization proposals.

The air traffic controllers union said Wednesday it supported modernization. But Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers, said that the FAA appears too fixated on future technology - and that the agency 'has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to maintaining current equipment.'

'We continue to lose confidence in the reliability of the equipment we are tasked to use to keep the system safe and efficient,' Church said.