Technology glitch underscores need for new air traffic control system

FAA has started to test features of the modernization program NextGen and will roll them out incrementally.

The technology problem that delayed flights nationwide on Thursday morning highlights the necessity of an ongoing air traffic control modernization effort, House lawmakers said.

"The communications and systems failures on Nov. 19, 2009 ... [are] a sobering reminder of the urgent need to update the equipment air traffic controllers rely on to manage air traffic," wrote House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., in a letter to Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel.

Oberstar and Costello asked the IG to conduct a 60-day study on the causes of the failure.

During the outage, air traffic controllers were forced to manage flight plan data manually. While they could communicate with pilots and see aircraft on the radar screen, they could not access electronic systems used to manage traffic flow or the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, which processes flight plans.

According to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, a software configuration problem with a router in FAA's Telecommunications Infrastructure in Salt Lake City was to blame. FAA did not respond to repeated requests for further comment.

The incident marked the second major outage of the system in 15 months. "The system is becoming overtaxed as we've seen over the last few years with extended delays over the summer during peak traffic period," said Peter Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association.

FAA has a solution in NextGen, an ambitious project to replace the radar-based system with a satellite-based setup. Originally NextGen was expected to be in place by 2025, but Dumont said FAA has changed its approach and is trying to roll out new systems and features on a more immediate basis.

"That way we can get incremental, marginal increases in capacity and efficiency as we move out of a ground-based system to a space-based system," he said

New technologies will allow air traffic controllers to manage routes, not individual aircraft, and to guide pilots through continuous descents rather than requiring them to level off before descending again. Dumont said gradual landings can save fuel and reduce the noise that occurs when planes level off.

FAA currently is testing programs in Alaska and Kentucky, but Dumont said it will probably be some time before the innovations reach major airports. He said his organization believes FAA's new administrator, Randy Babbitt, has made airspace modernization one of his top priorities.

"We have to make sure the changes we make are safe in the system," Dumont said. "We're seeing the benefits slowly but surely."