What About the Rest of the System?

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2008-09-24 Print this article Print

If the flight-plan system is suspect and is taking a long time to replace, what about the rest of the air traffic system?  What is its condition? The flight-plan and air traffic systems work hand in hand and are essential tools for the coordination of the nation's air traffic.

Most localized air traffic control systems in use today were designed in the 1960s and '70s and installed throughout those years and into the '90s. Radar has been used since World War II.

Many technologies are used in air traffic control systems. Primary and secondary radar is used to enhance a controller's "situational awareness" within his assigned air space; all types of aircraft send back primary echoes of varying sizes to controllers' screens as radar energy is bounced off their skins. Transponder-equipped aircraft reply to secondary radar interrogations by giving an ID (Mode A), an altitude (Mode C) and/or a unique call sign (Mode S). Certain types of weather also may register on a radar screen.

The traffic-handling systems used at most international airports are highly proprietary. Systems engineers are tight-lipped about them in general. They work hand in hand with the flight-plan system and have many redundancies built into them.

Stratfor, along with many other industry watchers, is very concerned about the flight-plan system and evidence that the system is wearing out.

"Regardless of what caused the Aug. 26 NADIN crash, [there] is a monumental challenge the event underscores. Here an archaic system that had survived nearly seven years of 9/11-inspired overhauls went down, dumping its entire workload on one other switch. The NADIN system had already been partially upgraded with systems from Lockheed Martin and is slated to be replaced altogether with the FAA's much-hyped NextGen Air Traffic Control system. But the lack of redundancy and dynamism demonstrated again by the latest NADIN crash makes a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure all the more feasible. And the cost of comprehensively upgrading these systems would be an enormous financial investment, far more than we have seen so far in the years following 9/11."

A Web site blogged by a number of former FAA staff members, FAAFollies.com, details many of the foibles the agency has suffered in recent years, including these last two system crashes.

Andy Isaksen, a computer scientist for the FAA in Atlanta, was the designer of the flight-plan system. He did not return a call from eWEEK about this story.

In a 2005 NetworkWorld article, Isaksen told writer Deni Connor that the NADIN system's two Philips DS714/81 mainframe computers were originally manufactured in 1968 and upgraded with new processors in 1981. Since then, they have been getting increasingly harder to maintain, support and write code for, Isaksen said.

That much is obvious. Philips' Netherlands-based computer-making arm ceased to exist shortly after delivering the FAA's two custom-made, proprietary mainframes in 1988; the FAA then bought the entire parts inventory as an insurance policy.

The Isaksen flight-plan network is the centerpiece of the FAA's air traffic system. Any aircraft that enters or leaves U.S. air space has to file a plan into the system. The network also serves as the sole data interchange between the United States and other nations to distribute flight plans for commercial and general aviation, as well as weather and advisory notices to pilots.

To its credit, the air traffic system probably has been running around the clock 99.9 percent of the time since the tail end of the Reagan administration. But the time has come for it to be replaced, and everybody knows it.

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on Salesforce.com and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and DevX.com and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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