air traffic control tower

What went wrong with the FAA's software over the weekend

The culprit of the air traffic snafu that left 492 flights delayed and 476 flights cancelled at Washington, D.C. area airports was related to a recent software upgrade at the Leesburg, Va., high-altitude radar facility, the Federal Aviation Administration concluded

The software issue occurred as part of a new feature in the En Route Automation Modernization system, an important pillar of the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control system that is set to replace the 40-year-old point-to-point legacy system.  The feature let air traffic controllers display customized windows of frequently referenced data, which was supposed to be removed from the system once deleted by controllers.

The data remained in the system’s memory until storage capacity was full, thus consuming processing power necessary for the operation of the system as a whole, the FAA said in a statement.  The current fix suspended the function entirely to eliminate the possibility of problems until the FAA and contractor Lockheed Martin implement a permanent solution. 

The ERAM system allows air traffic controllers to safely manage and separate aircraft; it uses 2 million lines of computer code to process data pertaining to aircraft speed, flight path and altitude.  According to the FAA, the ERAM system’s availability has been “higher than 99.99 percent since it was completed nationwide earlier this year.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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