Planes on ground, gripes in air

FAA glitch disrupts travel on East Coast

January 07, 2000|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A government computer glitch forced a virtual shut-down of airports along the East Coast early yesterday morning, including Baltimore-Washington International, snarling the schedules of hundreds of planes and temporarily stranding thousands of passengers.

From Boston to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., airports suffered the consequences of the malfunction, which began in a key Federal Aviation Administration computer in Leesburg, Va., at 6: 45 a.m. Passengers had waits of up to two hours at gates or on planes that had been poised for takeoff.

It was the second major technical problem for the agency this week. On Monday, a similar computer failure at an FAA control center in Nashua, N.H., delayed 125 flights in the Northeast region.

Neither incident appeared to be caused by a Y2K bug, or connected to the other, the FAA said.

"These are just two unrelated events which happened to occur within three days of each other," said FAA spokesman Jim Peters. The exact cause remains unknown, however.

"Once we fix the problem and return things to normal, we'll start putting everything under a microscope to find out why it happened," he said. Safety was never jeopardized, he added.

More than 300 flights trying to depart from the region were delayed. At BWI, that included 24 flights, with passengers delayed up to 90 minutes. At Reagan National, the glitch delayed 38 departures and at Dulles 90 others.

An unknown number of other flights arriving from cities outside the region, such as Chicago or Miami, also were stalled until the problem was fixed at 9: 49 a.m.

Steve Kowalewski was among the more frustrated persons pacing the BWI concourse at noon. He and his wife arose early yesterday morning and checked to make sure his daughter's 11: 15 flight to Austin, Texas, was departing on time. Told it was, the trio left their Manassas, Va., home and arrived 90 minutes later to learn the bad news.

"They told us the flight's been canceled, bingo, end of story," he said. He booked the next possible flight, not departing for two more hours. It meant his daughter would arrive four hours late, he said.

"I'm not very happy," he said. "It's horrible."

But Judi Wolf, who arrived an hour late on a Southwest flight from Cleveland, had no complaints.

"I'm really happy they slowed us down and didn't try to get us in the air," she said, before rushing off to a visit her grandson. "I would rather they err on the safe side."

The problem began in the FAA's main computer, which processes radar and flight information throughout the region. An inspection revealed the computer was having trouble handing off overload traffic to other control centers.

The agency then shifted to a backup computer, a procedure that requires slowing air traffic by holding flights on the ground and increasing the distance between planes in flight. In addition, a "ground stop" was placed, halting all southbound departures from the three airports in and around New York City.

"Why the computer failed when it did, we will find out," said Peters. "It's a lesson learned." The agency shifted back to the main computer just before 10 a.m.

A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said that despite the troubles more than 90 percent of its planes arrived on time yesterday. "That's an extremely good day," said Beth Harbin.

And officials running the airports said they were just glad it wasn't worse. Most of the problems had been ironed out by mid-afternoon.

"I think the reason why it went pretty well, if you can say that, is the passengers didn't seem to get overly upset. Maybe they understood the safety concerns."

Tara Hamilton, of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said the clear weather helped keep problems to a minimum at Dulles and Reagan National.

"Once the hold was lifted, the planes had no trouble getting in and out," Hamilton said. "And it happened early in the day, so people were able to rebook other flights without much trouble. If this had happened in late afternoon, we'd have had many more people affected."

But it was little consolation to people like David Jackson, who runs Jackson Polling Co., a public survey firm in Columbia. With his flight to Hartford, Conn., on hold, he spent the time trying to conduct business by cell phone, hanging up only at the last minute to race down the jetway once the plane was cleared for departure.

"What does this mean? It means a lot," he said. "I'm missing a big sales call."

For Michael Serabian of Severna Park, it meant losing an entire business day that he had intended to use to explore a real estate investment in Louisiana.

He was supposed to arrive at 10: 30 a.m., but was forced to book a later flight through Houston. He touched down in Louisiana at 6: 47 p.m.

Serabian, who said he has filed to run as a Democrat in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, said he had no complaints about his treatment by Continental Airlines.

"They were trying to accommodate passengers' comforts," he said. As for the FAA, they're still in hot water with him.

"I never thought it would be an issue, but I guess maybe they need to do some work."

Air traffic control outages such as what happened this week account for just under 2 percent of all air traffic delays, the FAA said yesterday. The agency's air traffic control systemh is currently undergoing a $13 billion system upgrade.

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