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The FAA's Computers Are On The Fritz. Should I Worry?

Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayed early this morning by a glitch in an Federal Aviation Administration computer system that helps manage 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 generates flight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually, and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronic documents that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft is going, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercial flights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simply has to sit on the ground.

Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problem occurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible, the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and another occurred 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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