Computer Glitch, Grounds Flights, Passengers

A computer glitch at the Federal Aviation Administration caused widespread flight cancellations and delays, causing air travelers across the nation to revise their plans. The glitch was reminiscent of a software malfunction that delayed flights around the country last year. Matthew Wald, a reporter for The New York Times, says there have been intermittent systemic disruptions for years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

A glitch in a single circuit board caused a lot of delays for air travelers across the country today. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, one of its circuit boards, actually a router, failed early in the morning in Salt Lake City. The FAA said that problem was fixed within four hours but the delays it caused went on a lot longer. This led New York Senator Charles Schumer to say that the U.S. aviation system is in shambles and had better be fixed or cascading delays and chaos across the country are going to become a very regular occurrence. Matthew Wald covers transportation for the New York Times and joins us now. Welcome once again.

M: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And this is not the first such disruption, what's going on?

M: We've had intermittent systemic disruptions for years. The FAA has an old system. It's trying to modernize it. They've tried to upgrade the power supplies, so you can't have a blackout. They accidentally cut the power. They tried to put in new phone lines that connect their controllers with the radio antennas, they cut communications. And this may be the latest in that category.

SIEGEL: You're saying this is a case of trying to fix the bicycle while riding it.

M: Yes. They still haven't figured out exactly what was wrong with this router but it's a fairly new system and that's clearly a possibility here, yes.

SIEGEL: Is this a very old system that they're working on, that they should have so many problems?

M: This is something called the telecommunications initiative, which began earlier in this decade, which means by FAA standards it's brand-spanking new.

SIEGEL: But, I mean, companies do - I'm not going to be naive about this, we have frequent breakdowns of computers here at work, but...

M: Right.

SIEGEL: ...there are repairs done and changes made and things don't crash all the time.

M: These guys have a 24/7 requirement. And the FAA points out correctly that this did not have any implication for airplanes in the air. What this particular system did was an airline files a flight plan, the flight plan is hundreds of characters, letters and numbers.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

M: It's like a URL, only worse. And it wasn't being taken into the system electronically, somebody had to sit and hunt-and-peck, type it in, and that took forever. But this has to function flawlessly all the time or they get behind.

SIEGEL: What do you think of Senator Schumer's rather dire forecast of what could happen?

M: Well, in a way it's borne out by the experience of the late '90s and early in this decade when we did a lot of modernization and had - I wouldn't call it regular - had these intermittent cascading failures. Those have been less frequent in the last few years. And I hope he's wrong that we're going to have more of them.

SIEGEL: Do you think this is inherent in running a big aviation system or is there anybody out there in the world that seems to be doing a significantly better job...

M: We have...

SIEGEL: ...of improving their computers?

M: We have the biggest, most complex - although not at this point the most advanced - we have the biggest air traffic challenge in the world. The FAA is intermittently criticized for the way it supervises the contractors who do most of the actual work. It's hard really to find someone to compare it to and it's acutely obvious when they make a mistake.

SIEGEL: Matt Wald, thanks a lot for talking with us.

M: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Matthew Wald who covers transportation for the New York Times.

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