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FAA Software Upgrade Fails, Triggering Travel Nightmare

FAA Software Upgrade Fails, Triggering Travel Nightmare

Postby smix » Sun Aug 16, 2015 11:43 pm

FAA Software Upgrade Fails, Triggering Travel Nightmare
The Wall Street Journal

URL: http://www.wsj.com/articles/faa-softwar ... 1439766205
Category: technologyNews
Published: August 16, 2015 7:03 PM ET

Description: U.S. airlines and airports along the East Coast returned to normal, albeit busy, operations on Sunday, a day after problems at a Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic-control center in Virginia led to cancellations of 476 flights. The FAA said late Sunday that its difficulties on the previous day likely were linked to a recent software upgrade at its high-altitude radar facility in Leesburg, Va. The FAA said in a statement that it has disabled the features added in that upgrade as it investigates further, and added that the weekend’s troubles weren’t related to its long-delayed and criticized En Route Automation Modernization system, or ERAM, for tracking flights at high altitudes. The disruption, which the FAA described in an advisory on Saturday as an “automation failure,” led it to restrict flights in the area served by its air-traffic control center in Leesburg, Va., from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. That, in turn, resulted in airlines canceling hundreds of flights into and out of Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., according to flight-tracking service FlightRadar24.com. By Sunday, several major airlines reported they had rebooked most or all of their passengers on new flights. American Airlines Group Inc. was among the hardest hit, with 245 cancellations. United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United service had 70. “This was an unusual event that disrupted a very large number of flights along the Eastern Seaboard,” said Ian Petchenik, a Chicago-based spokesman for FlightRadar24.com. “ATC-zero situations are not unprecedented, but they are rare,” he said, using the aviation term for an air-traffic-control center that shuts down operations. The FAA on Sunday didn’t divulge specifically what went wrong with the software upgrade at its Leesburg facility, but it did state “there is no indication that the problem is related to” the ERAM system, which “has had a greater than 99.99% availability rate since it was completed nationwide earlier this year.” The ERAM system is part of the FAA’s delay-plagued, $40 billion NextGen update of its technology infrastructure intended to, among other things, advance the FAA to satellite tracking of aircraft after decades of using radar tracking. The ERAM program, often criticized for being late and over budget, entails upgrading 20 air-traffic-control centers for handling high-altitude air traffic. For critics of FAA’s handling of the NextGen upgrade, the weekend’s cancellations, as well as another 492 flights delayed, provided an opportunity to argue that air-traffic control should be handled by a separate entity than the FAA. Joshua Schank, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., specializing in transportation policy, said that air-traffic control shouldn’t be overseen by the same agency setting air-travel safety regulations. He added that operating the U.S. air-traffic control system requires a more nimble agency than the FAA, which must answer to Congress. “We don’t know yet whether this was incompetence or just a glitch that happens sometimes,” Mr. Schank said of the weekend’s air-traffic-control troubles. “But what we do know is the FAA has been slow to deliver this technology.” Dominic Sanchez and his partner, Daniel Stimson, endured a roughly four-hour delay of their flight on Saturday night from Reagan National to Seattle. Instead of arriving for their vacation at 9:45 p.m. on Saturday as scheduled, they arrived at 1 a.m. on Sunday. But Mr. Sanchez, a 41-year-old hotel manager, isn’t upset with Alaska Air Group Inc. or the FAA. “It wasn’t the end of the world,” he said. “Alaska did a great job with all of their notifications. And I’m enjoying my vacation now. The airlines did the best they could.”
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