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Fri, Jan 25, 2008

Computer Glitch Leads To Delays Along East Coast

FAA, Union Dispute Safety Concerns

Another computer problem has resulted in some tense moments in US skies... and delays to dozens of flights on the ground. At least 265 flights along the East Coast were affected this week, after a computer glitch cut off communications at Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center.

The snag hit Boston Center at about 1800 local time Wednesday night, reports The Boston Globe, and lasted about 45 minutes. Controllers had to shut down and reboot a computer system used to track flight routes; while that occurred, controllers resorted to entering flight info manually, and needed to call other air traffic centers to obtain aircraft information for flights entering New England airspace.

FAA spokesman Jim Peters said the problem was an inconvenience, but didn't compromise safety... a contention disputed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers in a bitter dispute with the agency over a new contract.

"This was, in every possible sense, a dangerously unsafe and chaotic situation," said Kevin Bianchi, Boston Center’s NATCA facility representative. "Controllers were in essence working blind and, in many cases, actually had to question pilots to determine their location and routes of flight. Controllers were required to use a secondary backup system to safely track aircraft."

The union also disputes the timeframe quoted by the FAA, saying the situation lasted over an hour. In some cases, NATCA claims, flights in the air headed toward Boston Center’s airspace were barred from entering and had to be put into holding patterns... further complicating operations at FAA facilities adjacent to Boston.

Peters admits the problem is something of a mystery. Operators feel the problem lies in the software used by the computer system that failed, but they also sent a data-recording device to an FAA lab for analysis.

"This is an unusual event for Boston Center, and we have not seen this kind of a problem at any of our other centers," Peters said.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.natca.org, www.bostonartcc.net/

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