Moving Off FAA Mainframes: The Challenges of Transition

The mainframes running our air traffic flight plans and air traffic are beyond antiquated. They are flat-out dangerous say experts and former FAA employees, and the U.S. government agency has been lucky that they have not lead to any fatalities to date. Problems with the system have been happening for many years since the mainframe, legacy system was put into operation in January 1988.

That’s right: 1988.

On Aug. 26, 2008 a corrupt file entered the flight plan system and brought it down for about 90 minutes during a high-traffic period late in the day on the East Coast. This was not an isolated incident, as the FAA’s chief administrator originally had told the media. Similar crashes occurred on Aug. 21 and in June, FAA records show—and with this systems 20 year history, there have been others.

International intelligence analytical firm Stratfor, in an analysis published on Aug. 27, reported a similar system outage back in 2000. Another was reported in June 2007 in addition to the Aug. 21 and Aug. 26 crashes. Those are the ones we know about; we don’t know how many others were never made public information.

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 in coordination of the nation’s air traffic.

The company that built the mainframes for the FAA in the 1980s, North American Philips, went belly up later in 1988, though the FAA was able to buy up all the remaining parts inventory the dying company had available at the time.

The National Airspace Data Interchange Network’s (NADIN) current mainframe-based system is an integral part of the overall NAS (National Air Space) traffic system that processes an average of 1.5 million messages per day. As a result, industry analysts and a number of former Federal Aviation Administration staff members said they believe there is heightened likelihood of a major air traffic stoppage, as was demonstrated three times this summer by the crash of the system head in Atlanta. They also are concerned about increasing vulnerability to terrorist cyber-attacks.

People connected with this problem inside and outside the FAA agreed that the system needs to be upgraded as soon as possible. The main issues have been coming to an agreement on what kind of system to install for the long term and how to pay for it.