First Read

A first take on enterprise IT technology news and events.

FAA Networks, Like Bridges, Collapse Far Too Often

The fumble that fouled the FAA Aug. 26 was merely the most recent and most visible for an infrastructure that was installed during the Reagan Administration and purchased by a company that went out of business 20 years ago.


It is little wonder that the Federal Aviation Administration's flight plan IT network crashed shortly after lunch Aug. 26, shutting down takeoffs at more than 40 airports nationwide.

It is little wonder that the FAA's IT staff and contractors had the system back up and running within a few hours. Smart, dedicated crews always do.

What is a wonder is that the network had still been working shortly before lunch Aug. 26, say those managing similar networks. The network that handles more than 600,000 takeoffs and landings for millions of passengers daily relies on a mainframe system installed during the Reagan Administration, bought from a company that went out of business 20 years ago and running only at two sites -- one West Coast, one East Coast -- that serve as backup for each other.

FAA networks, like bridges, collapse far too often. That isn't too say the event is a frequent visitor to our lives, but once can be enough. A 40-year-old arched bridge collapsed in Aug. 2007 in Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring about 100 and shutting down the important I-35 corridor in the nation's 16th largest city. The collapse of one of the FAA's virtual bridges, which keep millions of souls safe every day, could be far more catastrophic.

Collapsing Infrastructure

It was a corrupt file this time around, say the FAA media folks taking a beating this week, but it's not the first time NADIN (National Airspace Data Interchange Network) or other pieces of the FAA infrastructure have stumbled.

The network, NADIN, has such a long and storied history that were it a human it would be approaching the legal drinking age. Charlie Leocha, a writer at the travel site, with a much better grasp of the ins and outs of the FAA, recounts that history. Portfolio's Kevin Kelleher recounts FAA network crashes, including one last week.

This is all rather frightening for those of us who rely on this infrastructure to get us from point A to point B safely, if not on time.

But it should come as no surprise that a government that allowed roads and bridges to collapse would achieve similar results maintaining our virtual roads and bridges. The United States scored a gentleman's "D" in the most recent Report Card for America's Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

I would Hazard a guess that our virtual infrastructure is sounder, if for no other reason than that most of it was constructed in the last 10 to 20 years. But the latest news from the FAA reminds us that the computer age, along with some of the infrastructure supporting it, is approaching middle age and showing signs of age itself.