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Air Traffic Computer Fails 104 Times in a Day

Times Urban Affairs Writer

A new, multimillion-dollar computer system failed repeatedly for brief periods throughout the day Sunday at the El Toro-based regional air traffic control center, endangering air safety, controllers said Tuesday.

In all, the computer system failed 104 times for periods of up to five minutes, resulting in certain computerized flight information disappearing from video screens used by controllers at the Coast Terminal Radar Approach Control, known as Coast TRACON.

There were no near collisions reported during the outages, officials said, but federal air traffic controllers had no way of knowing an aircraft’s altitude or identity except through voice communication during the failures.

“It was more than a little problem. You might say it was pretty chaotic,” said Jim Miller, deputy manager of the El Toro center.

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However, Merle Clure, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Los Angeles-based assistant regional manager for air traffic, minimized the air safety danger, saying that the longest computer outage lasted 5 minutes, and even though computerized flight data was lost during the outages, radar scopes continued to show each aircraft’s position.

“It was a hardware problem, and we think we have it corrected,” Clure said.

Although there were no “near-misses,” aircraft departing from Los Angeles International Airport through airspace controlled by the Orange County facility did encounter short delays because controllers were swamped with duties, according to Randy Moore, representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. at Coast TRACON.

“Thank goodness there were no mid-airs (collisions). . . . There was no backup,” Moore said.

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The computer failures wiped altitude, speed, aircraft identification and radio frequency data off of controllers’ screens, according to Moore, the controllers’ association representative. However, the screens did show aircraft as blips or so-called targets, he said.

Miller said an emergency technical crew was flown in from New Jersey and worked all night Monday to correct the problem.

There were at least four computer failures Monday, and three as of 3 p.m. Tuesday, Moore said. The FAA’s Clure said he was unaware of any further computer failures after Monday night’s repairs and could not comment.

Similar Failures

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Moore said other radar facilities in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have experienced similar computer failures in the past. But Clure said those problems were unrelated to the hardware difficulty at Coast TRACON.

Moore complained Tuesday that there is no backup system to the costly FAA computers, which 2 1/2 months ago replaced an aging system that did employ backups.

Clure, however, said some of the lost flight data would have been available at Coast TRACON if some parts for an inoperative decoder were not on back order. “We’ve placed those parts on high priority, but they’re not here yet,” he said.

The decoder deciphers information from aircraft transponders, devices in airplanes that give information about the plane’s altitude.

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Moore said that the controllers’ group previously filed complaints with the FAA about the El Toro system and has filed similar complaints at TRACON facilities elsewhere that have received the same system.

FAA Criticized

Two months ago, the National Transportation Safety Board strongly criticized the FAA for working conditions at Coast TRACON, saying that it has a higher-than-average error rate that has led to several near collisions of aircraft.

The FAA has blamed the problem partly on inadequate staffing. Special pay incentives were recently approved by Congress and the Administration to try to boost recruitment of additional controllers for places such as Orange County, where hiring has been slow. Officials have blamed high housing costs for making recruitment difficult.

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