Jeff Wise
November 19, 2009

Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayedearly this morning by a glitch in an Federal Aviation Administration computer system that helpsmanage air traffic. The snafu resulted in no accidents, but it raises an obvious question: could future such problems put passengers in danger?

The short answer, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, is no.“Radar coverage and communication with aircraft were never affected,”he told me. “So it’s not a safety problem at all.”

What happened was that the system that automatically generatesflight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually,and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronicdocuments that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft isgoing, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercialflights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simplyhas to sit on the ground.

Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problemoccurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible,the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and anotheroccurred in August 2008. Read more here.

Jeff Wise is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure, and author of the forthcoming book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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