grounded planes

Thousands of US flights grounded over database mishap

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A computer system offering safety information to pilots broke down yesterday, resulting in the grounding of thousands of flights in the US.

As of last night, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was still trying to determine the root cause of the 'Notice to Air Missions' (NOTAM) system outage.

NOTAM is used to alert aircraft pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the flight. It includes data on a raft of different hazards such as rocket launches; flights by important people, such as heads of state; closed runways; military exercises, and a whole host of other events which could disrupt a flight.

“Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file,” the FAA said. “At this time, there is no evidence of a cyber-attack.”

A senior official briefed on the internal review told ABC News that an engineer “replaced one file with another” without realising the mistake. “It was an honest mistake that cost the country millions.”

The system has now been fixed and flights are starting to resume operation. The FAA was able to lift the ground stop at around 9am yesterday on the East Coast, but the damage had been done to schedules for the day.

Nevertheless, almost 600 US flights have been delayed or cancelled so far today as airlines continue to recover from the historic grounding.

It was the first time that all US flights had been grounded since September 11 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City.

While the total number of grounded flights is still rising, airline officials believe that normal operations should return later today, provided that new issues aren’t encountered.

Canada’s air traffic system also suffered a similar outage to the one that occurred in the US, only for a briefer period.

Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg told a news conference that the problems “led to a ground stop because of the way safety information was moving through the system”. He added that his agency would now try to learn why the system went down.

“Periodically, there have been local issues here or there, but this is pretty significant historically,” said Tim Campbell, a former senior vice president of air operations at American Airlines and now a consultant in Minneapolis.

He said that many the systems currently used for air traffic information “are old mainframe systems that are generally reliable, but they are out of date”.

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