Is Outdated Air Traffic Control Software Posing a Risk?

Ever sat through a system upgrade on your computer? Nothing can happen until the upgrade is complete, and bugs that weren’t there before sometimes emerge. While this can be annoying personally, it can have more far-reaching consequences when it happens while you’re trying to run a business. Or an airport.Air Traffic Control TowerWe saw just how vulnerable our air traffic control software is when a glitch caused a delay that rippled throughout the country on Saturday, August 15, 2015.
The En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) computer software system provides air traffic control (ATC) centers real-time electronic aeronautical information and is designed to allow seamless use by thousands of users simultaneously.
One of its main features is supposed to be a fully functioning backup system so there would never be a need to restrict operations in the event of a failure. An upgrade to the system’s software proved that this is not the case when last summer the system essentially locked up and the glitch resulted in 492 delays and 476 cancellations.
According to a statement by Federal Aviation Administration:
A new function in the latest ERAM software upgrade provided individual controllers with the ability to set up a customized window of frequently referenced data. This information was supposed to be completely removed from the system as controllers deleted it. However, as controllers adjusted their unique settings, those changes remained in memory until the storage limit was filled. This consumed processing power needed for the successful operation of the overall system. By temporarily suspending the use of this function, we have eliminated the possibility of this particular issue from occurring again. The FAA is working with Lockheed on a permanent solution and the company is closely examining why the issue was not identified during testing.
The real issue is why the fully functional backup system didn’t work, and why, after a nearly 10 year implementation to replace the 40-year-old En Route Host system, the software on which ATC system functions remains vulnerable to such ripple effects that ultimately impact the entire nation.
Ultimately, the FAA was able to get everything back online and working properly, and they’ll have a final fix in place soon. But if you’ve ever cursed your computer for taking too long for an upgrade, you can imagine how the entire country felt.
Photo credit: Michael Gaida (Pixabay, Creative Commons)