The FAA’s Computers Are on the Fritz. Should I Worry?

Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayed early this morning by a glitch in an FAA computer system that helps manage air traffic. The snafu resulted in no accidents, but it raises an obvious question: could future such problems  put passengers in danger?

The short answer, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, is no. “Radar coverage and communication with aircraft were never affected,” he told me. “So it’s not a safety problem at all.”

What happened was that the system that automatically generates flight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually, and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronic documents that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft is going, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercial flights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simply has to sit on the ground.

Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problem occurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible, the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and another occurred in August 2008. After that episode, the FAA declared that it would fix the problem for good, CNET reported:

FAA representatives said that by September, it plans to add more computer memory to its data communications network known as National Data Interchange Network (NADIN). And by early next year, the FAA plans to completely upgrade the decades-old data communication network with new hardware and software. “The big difference is that (the new system) has a lot more memory, so what happened yesterday could never happen again,” said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere.

Obviously that didn’t happen. At the moment, the FAA still hasn’t said what has caused the problem, and reports have conflicted which of the two NADIN centers failed. Presumably, in the aftermath, they’ll promise that the system will be upgraded, and that the problem won’t repeat again in the future. Hopefully, this time they’ll mean it.

Sullenberger Redux

I was in the thick of writing Extreme Fear when Chesley Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 in New York City’s East River. I was instantly struck by how perfectly his feat embodied the central paradox of the book: how is that certain people can respond creatively to intense, life-threatening crisis? I wound up exploring his story in Chapter 12, “Mastery,” in which I  recreated the incident in some detail. This recently released computer simulation, however, gives a far more vivid sense of what Sullenberger was going through.

Kudos to Kas Osterbuhr, the engineer at K3 Resources who created the video, and to Jason Paur at Wired.com for his posting it.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger