- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

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.

As of Wednesday morning, the FAA said that the situation across the country had returned to normal, with most delays from the malfunction being cleared up Tuesday night.

But spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the investigation into what caused the problem is still ongoing, and she did not know when it would be completed.

“It usually takes a while to be quite honest,” she said.

At one point, an FAA Web site that tracks airport status showed delays at some three dozen major airports across the country. The site advised passengers to “check your departure airport to see if your flight may be affected.”

The FAA said the glitch appeared to have involved a software problem.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, 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.

Another FAA spokeswoman, Kathleen Bergen in Atlanta, said there were no safety issues and officials were able to speak to pilots on planes on the ground and in the air during the episode.

Ms. Spitaliere said that about 650 planes had been delayed as a direct result of the problem, which is roughly the fleet size of American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier.

In a 24-hour period the FAA processes more than 300,000 flight plans in the U.S., the agency said.

Ms. 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.

Ms. Spitaliere said there were some problems with arriving flights as well.

During an early evening conference call with reporters, Ms. Spitaliere said Tuesday’s glitch appeared to be a software problem and the situation was returning to normal, though the Hampton facility was not yet processing flight plans again.

She said delays of 30 minutes remained at airports in Chicago while delays of 60 minutes remained in Atlanta, which was also experiencing weather issues.

*AP writer Samantha Bomkamp contributed to this report.

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