- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

A computer failure at the Washington, D.C., area's air-traffic control center delayed flights along the East Coast for more than 90 minutes Thursday, frustrating scores of morning rush-hour commuters.
The Federal Aviation Administration halted flights at several airports, including Baltimore-Washington International, Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International because of the computer malfunction, which officials said was not related to the year-2000 rollover.
The computer that tracks aircraft at the FAA's control center in Leesburg, Va., failed to provide flight identifications and altitude readings on some planes, forcing controllers to track the planes manually on paper, said Tim Hardison, who was in the center at the time of the failure and is president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Washington Center Local.
When the backup system partially failed, the FAA stopped the departure of all flights that would pass through the region, about 180,000 square miles of airspace, affecting parts of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"To my knowledge, no one was put in jeopardy. When the system fails the way it did, it could have easily resulted in that way," Mr. Hardison said.
FAA officials said they do not know what caused the problem or if it will recur. "Judging from the time … and the fact that it was six days into the new year, we don't have any reason to suspect it was Y2K related," FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
Most airports reported no delays by midafternoon, but the problem affected thousands of travelers throughout the Eastern Seaboard, including Rep. Ed Pease, who sat for 1 and 1/2 hours on the Reagan National runway before his flight was canceled.
"I've never seen that many planes on the ground at National before," said the Indiana Republican. "Planes were just stacking up. Even when the computers did get back up they had this backlog."
The system began slowing down about 6:15 a.m. at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center, Mr. Hardison said. Around 8:10, traffic controllers began experiencing major problems and stopped all traffic from the New York and Washington metropolitan airports.
The FAA's Mr. Dorr said the controllers tried the backup computer about 8:30 a.m. and, realizing it also was providing inadequate information, held all planes through the region until about 9:50 a.m.
The computer also failed to transfer the information among controllers as the flights left one controller's air space and entered another's. Flight information was passed by hand throughout the control center and by telephone once the flights left the Washington region and entered another control center's airspace.
The Boston air-traffic flight center in Nashua, N.H., was forced to ground planes Monday evening due to another system failure similar to the one in Washington, Mr. Dorr said. About 125 planes along the East Coast were affected. Officials said that problem was not related to the year-2000 computer bug.
Thursday, 25 to 30 flights were delayed at BWI. Dozens of flights were affected at Reagan National and Dulles airports. No exact count was available, said Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman Tara Hamilton.
US Airways, the largest carrier at Reagan National, reported at least 100 flights delayed or canceled. A spokesperson for United Airlines, the main carrier out of Dulles, said about 30 planes were affected at the three local airports.
A few of the backlogged flights hadn't begun boarding by noon from Reagan National Thursday. Passengers, slumped in their seats, read newspapers and sipped coffee to pass the time.
Heidi Brouillett, 26, of St. Albans, Vt., played games on her laptop computer while waiting for four hours on a terminal floor.
"A nice two-day trip turned into a lot of sitting in airports," she said, noting numerous delays getting to the District on Tuesday, including one hour spent circling Philadelphia.
Mr. Pease, who missed a speech in Indianapolis when his flight was canceled, sits on the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee. "It's a little bit ironic," he said.
Thursday's flight problems underscore the need for Congress to give the FAA money to further modernize the air-traffic-control system, he said.
"We've known for years that we need to invest more," Mr. Pease said. "I guess I got a firsthand picture of why it's important."

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