'Flypocalypse' sparks worries about new air traffic control system

'Flypocalypse' sparks worries about new air traffic control system
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A highly touted piece of air traffic control equipment that is part of the Federal Aviation Administration's move to a satellite-based airplane navigation system failed on Saturday, resulting in thousands of flights in the Washington, D.C. area being delayed or canceled.

The troubled system, known as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), is supposed to help air traffic controllers move more flights around some of the nation's most congested airspaces, like Washington, which is home to three major airports. It is part of the FAA's broader conversion to a satellite-based flight tracking system known as NextGen.

But a computer in Leesburg, Va., went out on Saturday morning and took hours to come back up, resulting in a ground stop at all three Washington area airports that stranded thousands of passengers.

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Lawmakers have begun calling for an investigation into the computer failure, which was dubbed a "flypocalypse" by Twitter users on Saturday afternoon.

“The FAA’s air-traffic control operations failed in our nation’s key transportation corridor, stranding tens-of-thousands of passengers with no explanation,” said Rep. John MicaJohn Luigi MicaGOP chairman slams ‘pitiful’ FEMA response in Louisiana 12-term GOP rep gets Dem challenger in Florida Lawmaker gives Metro head 'certificate of appreciation' for firing managers MORE (R-Fla.), a former Transportation Committee chairman, in a statement. He promised to introduce legislation to require the FAA to provide better information about computer-related flight delays. 

“Thousands were left in the dark without information until more than four hours after the meltdown was solved,” Mica continued. “This type of air-traffic control failure cannot be permitted in the future, especially in our nation’s capital.

“The only saving grace was that this failure occurred on a Saturday,” he added.

The FAA has attributed the problem to a software update that went awry as air traffic was picking up on Saturday morning. The agency has sought to downplay any broader negative implications about the NextGen system.

"The FAA is focusing on a recent software upgrade at a high-altitude radar facility in Leesburg, VA as the possible source of yesterday's automation problems," the agency said in a statement.

"The upgrade was designed to provide additional tools for controllers," the statement continued. "The FAA has disabled the new features while the agency and its system contractor completes their assessment. There is no indication that the problem is related to any inherent problems with the En Route Automation Modernization system, which has had a greater than 99.99 availability rate since it was completed nationwide earlier this year."

The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that has been used to manage airplane traffic for generations and switch to a new system that would use satellites to track flights.

The agency says the NextGen system will ease congestion in the airspace around busy U.S. airports by streamlining the arrivals and departures of flights. It also argues that navigating flights more efficiently will have environmental benefits because airplanes will use less gas and produce less smog.

The catch is that the NextGen system is expected to cost about $40 billion to complete, and an original 2020 deadline for implementing it nationwide is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding is scheduled to expire in September, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension later this year.

The FAA has adopted a piecemeal approach to installing the new system while it waits for more money from Congress. The agency touted the computer system that failed on Saturday as a “foundational” project for its conversion to the satellite-based NextGen system when it was first installed in April.

“With this new technology, passengers will be able to get to their destinations, faster, safer, and have a smoother ride — all while burning less fuel to get there," Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxGeorgia Power says electricity at Atlanta airport will likely be restored by midnight Ex-Obama transportation chief on Atlanta airport power outage: 'Total and abject failure' To address America's crumbling infrastructure, follow Britain's lead MORE said in a statement when the installation of mid-flight tracking system was complete.

According to the website FlightAware.com, there were 8,224 flight delays on Saturday and 888 cancellations as a result of the FAA's computers problems in the Washington, D.C., area. Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall International and Washington's National airports were the most affected in the country, according to the site.

The computer failure occurred at a time when Republicans in Congress are pushing to privatize many aspects of air traffic control that are currently being performed by the FAA.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has called for the creation of a new nongovernmental agency that would take over air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Shuster has signaled that he will include the privatization push in an upcoming funding bill for the FAA, whose federal funding is currently scheduled to expire on Sept. 30.  

Shuster's office declined to comment on the FAA's computer issues on Monday, but transportation observers said the incident could be a sign of trouble for the much hyped satellite-based airplane navigation system.

“It certainly gives fodder for people who already think that moving air traffic control out of the FAA is a good idea,” Joshua Schank, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, said in an interview with The Hill on Monday.

“We don’t know whether this is related to that, but ERAM has been delayed a long time, NextGen has been delayed a long time,” Schank continued. “It certainly doesn’t help their case.”