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FAA identifies computer error that caused flight delays

A software problem that caused flight delays across the country today was not the first serious hiccup Federal Aviation Administration computer systems have suffered in recent years.

FAA officials said the problem had been resolved by mid-morning, after causing disruptions for about five hours. The glitch made it impossible for airlines to enter flight plan information into the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, according to the agency. FAA personnel entered the information manually, and the additional time needed for that led to delays.

However, the NAGIN system was not the ultimate system at fault, said Paul Takemoto, an FAA spokesman. That was the FAA's Telecommunications Infrastructure, which is the Internet protocol used for non-safety critical data transmissions. Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman, said the problem is being attributed to a software configuration problem with a router at the Salt Lake City facility.

Takemoto said the FTI system is deployed nationwide in air traffic control facilities. FAA has had FTI for several years and hasn't had previous problems with it, he said.

However, FAA systems in general have been troublesome recently. An incident in August 2008 delayed flights around the country. FAA at the time said that was caused by a "database mismatch" that interfered with data transmission.

FAA officials said that today's problem didn’t affect radar coverage or communications with flights in progress, but according to the Wall Street Journal, the air-traffic controllers union said the FAA systems that provide information on weather and wind speeds at airports weren’t functioning.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the FAA’s systems are overburdened by too much demand. Even in the current recession, the air transportation system is straining to meet all the demands, leading to delays or cancellations in one of five airline flights from January to October 2009, according to an Oct. 28 report from GAO. The problems are expected to worsen as the economy recovers and travel increases.

To improve its capacity and efficiency while maintaining safety, the FAA is moving to the Next Generation Air Transportation System, but that won't be complete until 2025. The improvements include integrated systems and procedures, aircraft performance capabilities, satellite-based surveillance and navigation and network-centric operations. Some of the changes will be implemented between 2012 and 2018, and some stakeholders have urged even quicker deployments.

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