WASHINGTON – An antiquated flight-plan computer system overdue for replacement was largely to blame for lengthy air-travel delays on the East Coast last week, critics say.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to replace the system, said David Spero, a regional vice president for Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents FAA technical workers. A lack of training on how to repair the outdated technology made the situation worse, he added.
The FAA has bought new computer servers for a replacement network and is developing customized software for it, FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said. Last Friday’s breakdown was unusual, and it’s difficult to know whether a new computer system would have prevented the problem, she added.
“We haven’t experienced a lot of problems with the existing system,” Spitaliere said. “It needs to be upgraded, and we’ve always said that. But it’s not like there were major problems” before last week.
By the end of 2008, the FAA plans to replace a mainframe computer network installed in 1988 that dispatches thousands of flight plans per day to air traffic controllers. The hardware was developed by a now-defunct Dutch company, Spitaliere said.
Known as the National Aerospace Data Interchange Network, the system is an internal communications network that sends pilots’ flight plans – including a flight’s route and departure time – to air traffic controllers around the country.
Without automated feeds of that data, controllers have to enter it manually – a labor- and time-intensive process.