Passengers walloped as U.S. airline software crumbles

Millions of passengers had their travel plans disrupted Jan. 11 when the Federal Aviation Administration had to impose a “ground stop,” which meant no flights could take off. A critical safety system had failed. This is the first ground stop imposed countrywide since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Captain Chris Torres, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, told Reuters Jan. 11, “This thing was lifted at 9 a.m. Eastern. That doesn’t mean the problem stops at 9 a.m. This is going to cause ripple effects.”

Given the long distances between major cities, which makes driving arduous, and the sparse passenger railroad schedule, flying is necessary to tie the United States together economically, transporting workers and goods. Every day U.S. airlines fly about 25,000 flights carrying about 2.3 million passengers.

Passengers stacked up in Denver.

NOTAM — Notice to Air Missions — warns pilots and others planning these flights about ground conditions — runway lights out, infrastructure, weather, etcetera — that might affect safety on a real-time basis. The FAA has recognized that this vital system is running on antique hardware with obsolete software.

The software problem, two lines of badly formatted data in NOTAM’s database, got moved to the backup system and, before it could be fixed, corrupted data there too. The only way to correct the problem was to reboot, that is, restart. The computer hardware is so old that the reboot took an hour and a half.

It would be charitable to describe the software and hardware system the airline industry relies on as dilapidated. The FAA and the industry managers realize that it is necessary to bring the system up to date.

But the decision to update this system, which was adapted from a system that was developed for ships in the 19th century, would involve money — a major investment — and would require coordination between competing airlines, the FAA and the unions representing the workers involved. It probably would require the modification and updating of all systems that interface with NOTAM, an enormous and expensive undertaking.

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