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Wed, Aug 27, 2008

Flights Return To Normal Following FAA Communications Problem

Hampton, GA Facility Suffered Similar Glitch On August 21

"One more example of America's deteriorating air travel system." That's how the Travel Industry Association summarized Tuesday's massive breakdown in the nation's air traffic control network, after a software glitch essentially closed one of two FAA centers that process instrument flight plan information.

As ANN reported, the glitch caused a communications link to be severed between FAA facilities in Hampton, GA and Salt Lake City that handle IFR flight plans. The problem shut down the Hampton facility, and overwhelmed personnel in Utah who were forced to do their best to handle all flight plans filed by pilots throughout the lower 48 states.

The end result? According to the FAA, 646 flights were delayed on the ground, as crews waited for their IFR clearances... with many more downline flights similarly delayed. At one point, the agency stopped accepting new flight plans completely -- and the FAA's Web site showing the status of flights was a sea of red, with three dozen airports showing delays and an advisory for passengers to check their departure airports for more information.

The communications breakdown even caused some problems for flights already in the air -- contrary to earlier FAA statements -- though officials stressed there was never a safety problem.

The Associated Press reports most of the delays had worked through the system by Wednesday morning, with flights largely back on schedule but for weather issues in the eastern US. "It usually takes a while to be quite honest," said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere, adding the agency is investigating what went wrong.

Of course, an occasional glitch is to be expected... but there's no reason to believe such a problem -- or one even worse -- won't happen again, for the simple reason that it's happened so many times before. (If you doubt that, do a search on ANN for "FAA glitch," and start reading. Not all the stories that come up are related to problems at FAA centers, but most of them are -- Ed.)

In fact, the Hampton facility suffered what the FAA stressed was an "unrelated" hardware failure on August 21, that also led to problems processing flight plans. At least 134 flights were delayed due to that error.

Quick to recognize an opportunity to tap into voter frustration, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his Republican counterpart, John McCain, each issued separate statements Tuesday on the matter. McCain said the problem "once again highlights the need to reform and repair a broken system," while Obama said "airline passengers are sick and tired of delays and cancellations."

The FAA has no reason to disagree... especially as the agency has said repeatedly it needs funding to start much-needed upgrades to the nation's aging air traffic infrastructure, to better handle the increased volume of air traffic.

Funding the FAA says it needs to start doing that stalled in the Senate earlier this year, as most ANN readers are well aware.



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