FAA blames software glitch after 440 flights are canceled, stranding tens of thousands of travelers

Chaos ensued in both the sky and on the planes August 15, after a traffic control automation issue at a Virginia air traffic control central disrupted hundreds of flights.

When the damage was all said and done, an estimated 440 flights were canceled on the densely populated U.S. East coast on Saturday. The flights that were shut down in the East had a reverberating effect, canceling and delaying flights throughout the country.(1)

An unknown problem emerged in the computer system that keeps track of flight plans at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Virginia. The computer glitch caused the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to stop all flights from three major airports in the D.C. area. The FAA noted that hackers were not responsible for the computer glitch.(1)

“The FAA is continuing its root cause analysis to determine what caused the problem and is working closely with the airlines to minimize impacts to travelers,” they said said in a statement.(2)

Perturbed passengers

The flight cancellations and delays understandably perturbed air travelers. Passenger Blake Jones from Colorado told sources that 30 minutes from landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the pilot alerted passengers that they had to make an unexpected landing. The incident caused Jones to miss a number of important meetings.

“I’m just disappointed because I paid for a ticket to get to Reagan in a timely manner,” he said in an article by CNN. “I had plans for the rest of the day, meetings scheduled that I had to cancel,” he continued.(3)

An estimated 25 percent of scheduled departures had been canceled, according to the website FlightAware.com, which is a service that monitors global air service.(3)

“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,” said the FAA.(4)

The worst traffic congestion took place at the country’s capital. Thousands of passengers either had to wait for planes that had been delayed or reschedule their flights.

Havoc in the skies

The computer glitch created havoc in the sky, with “high-altitude traffic” redirected around the center’s airspace. Planes that took off from Washington air space were kept at an elevation of 10,000 feet or lower.(3)

“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,” another FAA statement said.(4)

The software upgrade was intended to provide  extra tools that could aid air traffic controllers. The additional features have since been disabled until the agency and system contractor complete their investigation.

By Saturday evening, airports impacted by the computer glitch resumed normal operations. Nevertheless, by the time flights were back on course, the damage had been done. Thousands of passengers were affected by flights sprinkled across the Atlantic Coast that had been cancelled or delayed.

Some passengers vented their frustration through the web. “When I arrived at Newark, N.J., there were some problems with air traffic control and my flight was cancelled,” wrote passenger Sonia Palm in a ConsumerAffairs post. “This was distressing because my son was on his way to the Junior Olympics and was supposed to have been there that evening and did not make it.”(4)

The lesson learned? Computer upgrades aren’t without their downsides.

Sources include:

(1) News.Yahoo.com

(2) CNBC.com

(3) CNN.com

(4) ConsumerAffairs.com

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