FAA: Communication breakdown delaying flights

August 26, 2008 1:48:05 PM PDT
The Federal Aviation Administration said a communication failure Tuesday at a Georgia facility that processes flight plans for the eastern half of the U.S. was causing flight delays around the country. An FAA web site that tracks airport status showed delays of 16 to 45 minutes involving some three dozen major airports across the country. The site advised passengers to "check your departure airport to see if your flight may be affected."

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen in Atlanta said there are no safety issues and officials are still able to speak to pilots on planes on the ground and in the air.

She said she doesn't know how many flights are being affected.

Bergen said the problem that occurred Tuesday afternoon involves an FAA facility in Hampton, Ga., south of Atlanta, that processes flight plans. She said there was a failure in a communication link that transmits the data to a similar facility in Salt Lake City.

As a result, the Salt Lake City facility was having to process those flight plans, causing delays in planes taking off. She said there were no problems with planes landing.

"There will be flight delays," Bergen said. "It could be any location, because one facility is now processing flight data for everybody."

A spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest airport, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the impact there. Bergen said officials at the Atlanta airport were entering flight data manually to try to speed things up.

Discount carrier AirTran Airways, which has its hub at the Atlanta airport, said in a statement that because of the suburban FAA center snafu it is taking up to an hour for the FAA to get clearances to the towers for departures. Delta Air Lines Inc., which has its main hub in Atlanta, said flights are processing for takeoff, but slowly.

The communication failure was causing delays for departures and arrivals at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, according to airport spokeswoman Cheryl Stewart. However, she did not have a number on delays.

The FAA has asked that no new flight plans be filed, Stewart said. If an airline has not filed a flight plan yet, that flight can't leave. However, some flights had already filed their plans and those planes were being allowed to depart, Stewart said.

Brenda Geoghagan, a spokeswoman for Tampa International Airport in Florida, said "it may just be too soon" to determine the impact there. Christine Osborn, another spokeswoman at the Tampa airport, said there have been no delays due to the flight plan communication failure. But she said she anticipates problems in the coming hours.

"There's definitely going to be some impact," she said.

At Miami International Airport, there were no delays or cancelations due to the communication failure, said spokesman Marc Henderson.

"There are cancelations due to weather from the hurricane, but not due to this," he said.

The National Airspace Data Interchange Network is a data communications system for air traffic controllers. It's used to distribute flight plans and allows controllers to know when planes are leaving, where they're going and other details.

Allen Kenitzer, a western regional spokesman for the FAA, said the Utah system could handle the extra load while workers tried to get the Atlanta system back online, but it was expected to slow down air traffic.

"We're not going to let an unsafe condition exist. It's just going to be slower," Kenitzer said.

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