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U.S. flight delays hit Atlanta airport especially hard

The FAA blames a computer glitch in Salt Lake City.

November 20, 2009|By Dan Weikel
  • Caleb Raehl, 3, waits in line with his parents, Matthew and Rebecca, to be rebooked after their AirTran flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport was canceled.
Caleb Raehl, 3, waits in line with his parents, Matthew and Rebecca, to be… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

Hundreds of flights around the country were canceled or delayed Thursday after a communications failure at a Federal Aviation Administration computer center, leaving passengers scrambling to revise travel plans.

The glitch, which occurred about 5 a.m. Eastern time, prevented airlines from electronically entering their flight plans into an FAA computer in Salt Lake City that air traffic controllers nationwide rely on. FAA officials blamed a failed circuit board in a networking system that is used to transfer flight data.

Until the problem was corrected four hours later, controllers had to type up flight plans instead of obtaining them electronically, which slowed the air transportation system. An FAA computer center in Atlanta as well as 21 regional radar centers around the country were affected, officials said.

Hit hard by the problem was Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest commercial airport. The computer glitch aggravated delays caused by bad weather in the Northeast, and airports in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the South experienced cancellations and scheduling problems.

Some flights were postponed more than two hours, and on-time arrivals for some airlines plunged as much as 40%, according to information from FlightStats.

AirTran canceled more than 30 flights and delayed scores more. Delta Air Lines canceled at least 54 flights, and the operations of JetBlue Airways slowed on the East Coast. American Airlines delayed several hundred flights, company officials said.

"Operations are slowly returning to normal and we are working with impacted passengers," Ed Stewart, a spokesman for Delta, said Thursday afternoon. "Cancellations and delays are fairly minor, although we are continuing to assess our operations."

Officials at Los Angeles International Airport, Ontario International Airport, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and John Wayne Airport in Orange County reported few, if any, problems stemming from the outage. Jenny Wedge, a spokeswoman at John Wayne, said one Delta flight from Atlanta arrived several hours late.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement in response to the delays, saying the country's aviation system was "in shambles" and that the FAA needed more resources to prevent such problems and modernize its equipment.

"If we don't deliver the resources, manpower and technology, these technical glitches that cause cascading delays and chaos across the country are going to become a very regular occurrence," he said.

In August 2008, an electronic failure at an FAA site that processes flight plans for the eastern United States caused massive delays around the nation, especially in the Northeast. FAA officials blamed a software problem at a facility in Hampton, Ga.

Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, defended the agency, saying its equipment had been "extremely reliable" and was in service more than 99% of the time, on average. He said the malfunction that caused the 2008 problem was different than Thursday's glitch.

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