Washington Center Blackout Traced to Software Glitch

Automation failure led to mass flight cancellations.

Air Traffic Controllers
Air Traffic Controllers
Washington Air Route Traffic Control CenterCourtesy of FAA

If the FAA's top brass wanted to send a clear message to lawmakers that they really have no business managing the NextGen ATC infrastructure modernization program, a crippling computer meltdown in Washington D.C.'s airspace snarling air traffic up and down the East Coast on a busy summer travel weekend would be just the way do it.

The FAA most assuredly did not want to send any such message, especially with some in Congress calling for a privatized corporation to take over ATC in the face of FAA NextGen upgrade programs failings, but the serious software glitch on Saturday at the Washington Center facility in Leesburg, Virginia, certainly is raising eyebrows in the nation's capital as the privatization debate heats up.

Center controllers were left scrambling after a failure of the new En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) computer system, a key NextGen technology used for tracking flights at high altitude. The glitch was traced to a software update that gave controllers the ability to set up customized windows of frequently accessed data. This information was supposed to be removed from the system as controllers deleted it, but instead changes remained in memory until the storage limit was filled.

During the five-hour outage, controllers relied on backup systems as they were forced to reduce arrivals and departures across the region by about 30 percent.

The FAA pointed the finger at ERAM prime contractor Lockheed Martin, but the agency admitted it has been unable to determine why the issue wasn't uncovered during testing or why the ERAM system didn't issue warnings when its memory was nearing capacity.

Lawmakers will certainly be asking these very questions when they return from their long summer break next month.

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