Why Did the Air Traffic Control System Fail Last Week?

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Air traffic control is a critical part of the almost 10 million domestic flights per year in the United States, so when air traffic control systems have issues, it can cause huge problems. Last week, the system that warns pilots of potential hazards in the air around them went down for several hours, causing thousands of flight delays. Here’s why the air traffic control system failed last week and what its effect was.

What failed exactly?

The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, is the sector of the U.S. Department of Transportation that’s in charge of regulating all air traffic. The FAA system that failed last week was the Notice to Air Missions system, which allows air traffic control to warn pilots of potential hazards.

Flights can’t take place without the protection of the Notice to Air Missions system, so an outage means that all flights must be completely halted until the system is fixed. Since flights run on a fairly rigid schedule, this can cause setbacks for a while after the system is back online.

What caused the system failure?

The FAA is still searching to find exactly what the cause of the system failure was, but in a recent statement, a representative said, “our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file.”

System outages like this have happened in the past, but rarely for a national system that controls flights across the whole country. One notable incident was a 2014 event in which the LAX air traffic control system went down due to a lack of available computer memory.

It’s important for professionals to address these issues and find the cause of them to prevent potential cyberattacks against weaknesses in the system. There’s currently no indication that this outage was caused by a cyberattack.

How long was the system down?

Air traffic control system failures for even a small period of time can be dangerous and cause major travel delays, so it’s fortunate that this failure was corrected relatively quickly. The system began having problems on Tuesday night and completely failed at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning. After a reboot of the system took much longer than expected, the FAA paused all domestic flights at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and systems were back online by 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

How many flights were affected?

The FAA regulates all the air traffic control in the entire country, so nearly 10,000 flights were delayed, and over 1,300 were canceled completely due to the outage. There are, on average, 1,100 domestic flights per hour in the U.S. Delays continued into Wednesday afternoon and evening, hours after the system was back online.

Some experts have said that this incident shows how vulnerable our current air traffic control systems are to disruption and how a seemingly small issue can almost completely halt air travel. Hopefully, this event will lead to increased efforts to tighten these systems and prevent future system outages from happening.

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