Bad Router Took Out FAA Communications

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A malfunctioning router was behind the system-wide slowdown of the air traffic control system last Thursday. The glitch occurred in Salt Lake City at the fortunate hour of about 5 a.m. EST. At that time, the router's impending failure resulted in the delivery of misinformation about flight paths and weather to controllers. The problem remained unresolved for four hours, forcing the FAA to lighten the workload of controllers and leading to delays of about 45 minutes to 80 minutes at the nation's busiest airports -- less than a bad weather day. But unlike weather, and although it was only the second such failure in about 15 months, this problem was theoretically avoidable and effectively crippled the transference of information across a network that delivers phone, e-mail and flight data to air traffic controllers. It's also an example of the layers of modern hardware that the FAA has had to connect with archaic technologies still in place throughout the system. "This is like going into the house and having to redo the plumbing and electrical," the Flight Safety Foundation's William Voss told The Wall Street Journal of Thursday's failure. "It's essential for anything else to work."

That it's "one of the most reliable and secure communications networks operating within the civilian government," according to a spokesman for Harris Corp., which manages the system, doesn't mean it can't be improved. But FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown, also quoted by the Journal, said the agency is "very pleased" with the general performance of the FAA's telecommunications system, of which this failure is a part. Rep. Jerry Costello, D - Ill., wondered how one bad router could take down the whole system. "Why did it take four hours to locate a seemingly small technical problem, and why did it have a system-wide effect?" Costello asked in a statement issued Friday.