ATLANTA – Mass flight delays caused by an electronic communication failure at a Federal Aviation Administration facility drew new criticism for an agency that has been scrutinized over air traffic controller staffing levels and inspection standards for its ground-based equipment.
The Northeast was hardest hit by the delays prompted Tuesday by a glitch at a Hampton, Ga., facility that processes flight plans for the eastern half of the U.S.
By early evening the FAA said the situation around the country was returning to normal, with delays remaining in Atlanta and Chicago.
At one point, an FAA Web site that tracks airport status showed delays at about three dozen major airports.
The FAA said the glitch appeared to have involved a software problem.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, said the episode “once again highlights the need to reform and repair a broken system.” His Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, said, “Airline passengers are sick and tired of delays and cancellations.” And the nonprofit Travel Industry Association called it “one more example of America’s deteriorating air travel system.”
The FAA, for its part, said it would work to make sure the problem doesn’t happen again.
“We have our engineers looking at it and we’re doing a complete investigation,” FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said.
Another FAA spokeswoman, Kathleen Bergen in Atlanta, said there were no safety issues and officials were able to communicate with pilots on the ground and in the air.
She said she did not know exactly how many flights were affected, but it was in the hundreds.
Bergen said the problem that occurred Tuesday afternoon involved a failure in a communication link that transmits flight plan data from the Georgia facility to a similar facility in Salt Lake City.
As a result, the Salt Lake City facility was having to process those flight plans, causing delays in planes taking off. She said the delays were primarily affecting departing flights.
During an early evening conference call with reporters, Spitaliere said the situation was returning to normal, though the Hampton facility was not yet processing flight plans.