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FAA's Aging Flight-Plan System Having Problems 176

Posted by Soulskill
from the avoiding-the-word-'crash' dept.
Eddytor takes us to eWeek for a look at the FAA's air-traffic control system, which, after 20 years of continuous operation, is in desperate need of an overhaul. Recent crashes have caused major delays, but the system's scope and importance make it difficult to test upgrades and improvements. "Many technologies are used in air traffic control systems. Primary and secondary radar are used to enhance a controller's 'situational awareness' within his assigned airspace; 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 callsign (Mode S). Certain types of weather also may register on a radar screen."
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FAA's Aging Flight-Plan System Having Problems

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  • Crashes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mollymoo (202721) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:36AM (#24900121) Journal
    I do wish TFS would make the distinction between software crashes and aircraft crashes.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Epistax (544591)
      *Bash*

      Well if we switch the system over the Vista, they will be one and the same.

      *Drums*
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by IvyKing (732111)
      What's worse is TFS used "Air Traffic Control system" when TFA was almost entirely about the flight planning system component of ATC.

      IMHO, the real problem with updating ATC is that the original ATC system was designed by veterans of SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) and thus had a really good idea of what would or would not work. Unfortunately, most of the SAGE veterans are either retired or dead and the only conceivable training program since then would have been the SDI program.

      • by mollymoo (202721)
        I didn't know about SAGE. Very interesting stuff, I'm glad you mentioned it. I love the fact that the terminal had a built-in cigarette lighter and ashtray.
        • by IvyKing (732111)
          My mother-in-law was talking about some of the activities at her retirement community and mentioned a talk given by a fellow named Jay Forrester. The name sounded familiar, google'd it, and one the first entires mentioned magnetic core, SAGE... No wonder the name sounded familiar.

          A LOT of what we take for granted wrt computers was originally developed for SAGE.

  • Article on one page [eweek.com]

    The article says that the FAA's air traffic control system is broken and needs a bunch of help, but the article doesn't give any real suggestions. I'll give mine.
    1) Give pilots in-flight radar.
    2) Create new ATC system to make sure pilots follow flight plan
    3) ??????
    4) Lose money (cause you're an airline)
    5) ??????
    6) Profit?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Isao (153092)
      1) Give pilots in-flight radar.

      If you mean weather radar, they have it. If you mean radar to see other aircraft, they already have (available) TCAS [wikipedia.org] - Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System

      • by NoPantsJim (1149003) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:24AM (#24900405) Homepage
        TCAS isn't so much "in flight radar" as it is "holy shit last minute saver of your ass". TCAS doesn't do anything until a collision is basically imminent, at which point it gives instructions on how to avoid said collision.

        ADS-B [wikipedia.org] is the real in flight radar.
        • by GooberToo (74388)

          ADS-B is not in flight radar. Few aircraft currently have it and the services is not universally available.

          Furthermore, the FAA is working hard to f-up acceptance and universal value that ADS-B would provide for all aircraft. This is yet another example of the FAA working hard to keep modern technology out of the hands of pilots while keeping both costs and risks up.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by FlyingGuy (989135)

          Ever been a pilot?

          As a pilot, unless I cannot communicate with ATC I don't want to have yet another system to monitor. Cruise flight is not where the problem is, it is approach and departure and in those phases of flight I am one busy MoFo and I don't have time to stare at yet another screen full of mostly useless information, since I am busy flying the fucking plane.

          Technology has come a long way, I don't have to constantly scan the engine instruments because they have warning lights and buzzers and whatn

          • I would hope you're a fan of ADS-B than. It'll greatly simplify your life.
            • by FlyingGuy (989135)

              I love the idea of ADS-B, I just don't need more general information, I need information that matters. If the thing can tell me, "You are on a collision course with another plane and that plane is at bearing 304, altitude X, speed Y and give me time to intercept, then great, otherwise leave me the fuck alone, I got shit to do that is immediate.

              If this makes the ATC system better, I am all for it, just don't give me more information overload, I have enough things to juggle, between managing the airplane, fl

        • I'm a firm believer that TCAS should be linked to the autopilot. In most accidents where TCAS came into play, one pilot followed TCAS, and the other listened to the controller.
    • by HangingChad (677530) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:02AM (#24900283) Homepage

      , but the article doesn't give any real suggestions.

      People probably won't like my suggestion, which would be to regulate air travel again. Cut the routes, limit take off and landing slots, increase the seat and isle widths and let airlines raise prices to the market level of support. Add a gas tax to keep the cost of gasoline above $3.50/gallon and take the money pay for building a high speed train system across the US. To me that would be worth going into debt for, short term anyway. It would create jobs here and give people an alternative to our broken air transportation system.

      The trains could handle the commodity traffic and airlines could compete for luxury traffic, just like the old days. We have to do something. We have 3% of the world population and use 25% of the gasoline. Without alternatives we're never going to get people out of their cars. If I could go anywhere in the continental US in 24 hours, I'd never fly again.

      With the added bonus of keeping air traffic at a predictable level for the FAA.

      • by bendodge (998616)

        What you should have said is "We're never going to get people out of personal transport." People, especially here in the US, are independent creatures. They prefer personal transportation to mass, and personal right now happens to be gas.

        Why don't we have electric cars yet? There was even a recent article here about all these people making their own because they're tired of waiting. In order to cut gas consumption, we must relax regulations on battery technology and allow more nuclear power plants.

        Yeah, you

        • by Firethorn (177587) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:29AM (#24900901) Homepage Journal

          People, especially here in the US, are independent creatures. They prefer personal transportation to mass, and personal right now happens to be gas.

          While people do often like their cars, as a person who has traveled by bus(both city and greyhound), train, plane, taxi, and car I have to say that there are reasons for so many people being almost glued to their vehicles.

          To Wit: The alternatives suck. And the old saying: time costs money

          For commutes, you're stuck using their schedule, not your schedule. When I had a *free* bus available, I mostly drove to work. Why? Because my work, despite being the one providing the bus, set the bus schedules in a paranoid fashion, resulting in adding 2 hours to my 12 hour work day. If it's simply added a half hour, I'd have taken it. The $2-4 saved back then just wasn't worth the time.

          So, in any proposal to actually get people out of their cars, you have to acknowledge this. If you can make your theoretical public transport faster, cheaper, and more reliable than a car, you'd easily be able to get a large number of cars off the road.

          That's why I like the idea of a high speed PRT system - you get the system's average speed above that of cars and a ticket that costs less than the gas to drive the same distance and you're gold. For an inner city system that'd often be 25-35 mph, for a interstate type system I'd want 100mph at a minimum*.

          relax regulations on battery technology

          Specifics?

          *And a way to keep the same car when you stop to use the bathroom or even eat at a restaurant.

          and allow more nuclear power plants

          I agree with you here, but this reminded me of a local politician campaign add talking about 'adding more wind power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil'. I don't mind green energy by any means, but I detest fuzzy logic. Wind turbines produce electricity. Electricity, at this time, is insignificantly tied to our demand for oil. We could triple our electricity production and cut the cost in half and we'd barely reduce our demand for oil. At that, it'd be mostly people in the northeast switching from oil heating to electric. And they're already switching away from oil in many cases.

        • by nomadic (141991)
          relax regulations on battery technology and allow more nuclear power plants.

          In neither case is government regulations the problem. Battery technology hasn't advanced much because the people designing them still haven't figured out how to dramatically increase battery power. And there aren't any new nuclear power plants because it is hideously expensive to make them.
          • by cdrguru (88047)

            There are no nuclear power plants because a few people have been able to block the technology and growth since the 1970s.

            For example, "everyone" knows that a large number of people died because of Three Mile Island, right? Exactly how many died? 10,000? 1,000? Would you believe ZERO? No, I didn't think so.

            So how many people died directly because of Chernobyl? Most people believe it was again thousands. It was 46, and they were all on the roof of the reactor building fighting the fire. A lot of people

      • by AB3A (192265)

        You missed one key point: We haven't built many new runways or airports in the last 20 years. Add to that problem the numerous reliever GA airports closing every year and you can see that the large airports are getting swamped with traffic they were never designed to handle.

        Most of the congestion in our modern airspace system is on the runway! Modern navigation systems have significantly improved air safety and situational awareness. The chance of a mid-air collision away from the runway environment is n

        • by Oswald (235719)
          Can't speak for other jurisdictions, but in terminal airspace, the FAA mandates 6, 8, or 10 miles behind the A380 [faa.gov]. (Sorry about the pdf.) It's gonna be a real pain at busy airports, but they'll probably adjust by always running a heavy jet behind it (thereby only losing a mile versus current restrictions).
        • by Brickwall (985910)
          "Most of the congestion in our modern airspace system is on the runway!"

          Absolutely. Here in Toronto, every airline wants to advertise a 7:00 am departure to NY, Montreal, Chicago, Ottawa, and a few other destinations. The result? 30 planes waiting to take off at 6:59 am (they all push back then so they can be "on time"), but because of the wake issues you pointed out, and the paucity of runways (2 at any one time) at YYZ, some of those 7 am planes are going to sit on the runway until 8:00 am.

      • by ricegf (1059658)

        People probably won't like my suggestion

        Bingo, because you're asking for a load of new government regulation to "save" us. The problem with that "solution" is that it's government regulation and subsidies that screwed up the US transportation system in the first place.

        Howzabout we kick the government out of the transportation sector entirely (except for safety and consumer protection roles) and let the travelers select the best options with their own dollars?

      • by GooberToo (74388)

        People probably won't like my suggestion, which would be to regulate air travel again. Cut the routes, limit take off and landing slots, increase the seat and isle widths and let airlines raise prices to the market level of support.

        This would naturally happen if the government would stop subsidizing air travel. As is, AA being the poster child and SWA being the notable exception, few airlines are actually line like a business. If the government would stop handing out money, AA would go out of business or be

        • If the government would stop handing out money, AA would go out of business or be forced to operate responsibly.

          After all, they would be forced to operate like a business....

          So, which is it? Operate as a business, cutting costs at every turn, or operating responsibly, even if it means taking a loss?

          • by GooberToo (74388)

            So, which is it? Operate as a business, cutting costs at every turn, or operating responsibly, even if it means taking a loss?

            It's a double edged sword for sure. With FAA inspectors doing their job, it's hard to cut costs on things that matter. With independent inspections, balance is maintained. Balance can be had and many operators find it. American Airlines is simply not one of those operators.

      • by Crazy Taco (1083423) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @12:43PM (#24901457)

        People probably won't like my suggestion, which would be to regulate air travel again. Cut the routes, limit take off and landing slots, increase the seat and isle widths and let airlines raise prices to the market level of support. Add a gas tax to keep the cost of gasoline above $3.50/gallon and take the money pay for building a high speed train system across the US. To me that would be worth going into debt for, short term anyway. It would create jobs here and give people an alternative to our broken air transportation system.

        That's ridiculous, and a sign of complete stagnation on your part. How about we either fix the system, or design a better one? The answer is not to stagnate, but instead to build again!

        Telling people to return to trains is ridiculous, and who has time for that anyway? If the air system isn't safe, fix it. If it can't be fixed, then build a better one. There is nothing that people in the 80's could do that we shouldn't be able to equal, if not vastly exceed. They weren't magicians, and their technology was far less advanced than what we have been able to create in the intervening two decades.

        The trains could handle the commodity traffic and airlines could compete for luxury traffic, just like the old days. We have to do something. We have 3% of the world population and use 25% of the gasoline. Without alternatives we're never going to get people out of their cars. If I could go anywhere in the continental US in 24 hours, I'd never fly again.

        Where do I even start with this? Here are just a few of the many things wrong with this statement:

        1. We aren't talking about getting people out of their cars. We are talking about a broken air transportation system in need of fixing.
        2. Other people don't share your views about the 24 hour thing. I can go from my house here in Ohio to my parent's house in Des Moines, IA, in 12 hours in the car, probably 6 hours by plane (factoring in wait times at airports), or 24 hours by bus OR a train, and the train will require an additional hour of driving at the end because it doesn't even have a route to a city as big as Des Moines! Let me clue you in: I'm not going to take that 24 hour train, and I don't think anyone else will either.
        3. Even if we were willing to take a 24 hour train, you aren't getting one anyway, no matter how fast the engine is. The reason the train between Ohio and Iowa takes 24 hours is because of all the stops at stations, including a big one in Chicago. I don't care if your train goes 300 mph, those stops are still going to happen, and you aren't going to get across the country in 24 hours unless there is an express.
        4. If there was an express, it still doesn't do most people any good. You talk about reducing airline routes, but did you stop to think why there are so many? It's because the people in this nation are spread out in small cities and towns all over the country, and airlines have to service those smaller population centers. Having some fast 300 mph train express routes between LA and NY isn't going to fix anything, because you still have to connect all the other towns and cities for most people to be able to start taking the train. And you can't have an express route between every pair of towns in the system, so you have to start setting up lines and making stops. And if you start making stops all over, your trip gets a lot slower.
        5. And finally, what makes you think this train of your is going to be so vastly more efficient anyway? You start hitting 300 mph and your train will start dealing with the same huge air resistance forces that planes have to overcome. And how are you going to power and propel this thing? Maglevs and wires by the rail? Well, again to clue you in, the energy has to come from somewhere, and it's either coming from gasoline or it's coming from wires connected to power plants that probably burn coal or something. So all your idea really does is wastes billions of taxpayer dolla
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by BarefootClown (267581)

        We have 3% of the world population and use 25% of the gasoline.

        We use 25% of the world's gasoline, and produce 25% of the world's gross product (2007 numbers, from multiple sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal) [wikipedia.org] )
        As long as we continue to be that productive, we'll probably use a pretty sizable chunk of resources, too.

      • by toby (759) *
        Awesome. If only more people thought like you. :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by cdrguru (88047)

        Trains? Sorry, but the train era ended around 1970. After it was decided that trains were no longer profitable, they tore up the tracks and sold the land off.

        Today, if you take the train, you will find that passenger service has to wait on sidings until the track (just one left) is cleared because freight is also using it and is more important. On the east coast there are some train lines left with some passenger service tracks, but that is the exception to the rest of the country.

        Nobody is going to buil

  • Testing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dripdry (1062282) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @09:48AM (#24900201) Journal

    Couldn't they just hook the new system into the current data that's being provided from RADAR and other sources alongside the old equipment? Hire testers (retired air traffic controllers?) to test use the systems and see how they hold up. Once enough data has been gathered, allow the some of the data to be fed to the actual ATCs, perhaps let them use the system side by side (not sure how that would work). Maybe it would be even better to just build a new ATC Tower with the systems built in already, hire an extra shift of ATCs or testers, provide training, and one day in the future just do a hot swap.

    I realize the are hurdles, but unless I'm missing something (IANAATC) it seems possible, if costly.

    Alternatively they could test it out at regional airports first, as the equipment and changeover is likely to be on a smaller scale.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Thanks for that, I bet the FAA guys will really appreciate it. They were just going to plug the new system in and hope that it worked, but your novel idea of "testing" could literally be a life saver.
    • by PPH (736903)

      Who is this "they" you speak of? The FAA has neither the funds nor the expertise to do this kind of work themselves.

      This will have to be done by contractors as a major overhaul, with opportunities to make billions of dollars clearing last generation, old technology systems out of their inventories.

  • by Narnie (1349029) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:04AM (#24900297)

    It's pretty apparent that the current system isn't up to the task. I think the real questions should be more along the lines of upgrade or redesign? and in-house engineered versus contractor engineered? I hear there is a replacement on the way, but is it an actual 1 to 1 replacement or is it just replacing a few machines but the heart of the system is some old POS box that's been running since 1988? (I've seen other government networks receive upgrades like this)

    Given the vast scale of the system, the constant use, and the time it would take to retrain all of the operators, how would you start testing and implementing new hardware? Just continue running the same code on new hardware... providing a few software tweaks to allow it to scale? Just how old is the current system? DOS era computing? CTOS? ENIAC?

    • by red_dragon (1761) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @10:31AM (#24900461) Homepage

      Just how old is the current system? DOS era computing? CTOS? ENIAC?

      The FAA's flight plan system uses two Philips DS714 computers. Network World ran an article in 2005 [networkworld.com] when the FAA announced that they'd be replacing them with two Stratus ftServer boxes. It's not difficult to imagine that they haven't come close to that goal yet.

      If you want to see how creaky the DS714s are, take a look here [spencerweb.net].

      • I still don't understand what's the big deal here.
        There is an existing system which is apparently well understood, both in terms of operational details as well as problems they wish to solve.

        How hard can it be to design a new system according to these specs, test it alongside with the old system (with real data!) and then roll it out?

        If training is an issue then fine, provide an interface that's identical or very similar to the old one.
        If you're worried about bugs then fine, test it until you feel comfortab

        • If training is an issue then fine, provide an interface that's identical or very similar to the old one.

          Fail. A new system is supposed to be easier-better-faster. Duplicating the old interface usually isn't the way to get that.

          If you're worried about bugs then fine, test it until you feel comfortable. E.g. by processing all (or a large portion) of incoming data twice, once by the regular operators and once by operators using the new system - then compare the results.

          And 'regular operators' are suppose
          • Fail. A new system is supposed to be easier-better-faster. Duplicating the old interface usually isn't the way to get that.

            Sometimes you have to maintain (parts) of the old system because an overnight transition (training etc.) is unrealistic. This may be the case here.

            And 'regular operators' are supposed to do this inbetween processing actual flights? Riiiight.

            Well, I'm assuming that there are spare operators on stand-by all the time, no? Ofcourse no real operator is supposed to test the system in between

            • Sometimes you have to maintain (parts) of the old system because an overnight transition (training etc.) is unrealistic. This may be the case here.

              Obviously. In a system this large and ingrained, 'overnight' is impossible. And for the overlap, people have to do double work. Which controllers can't, because they are at their max workload already.

              Well, I'm assuming that there are spare operators on stand-by all the time, no?

              Bringing them online to 'test' means paying them when you wouldn't otherwise b
    • I had the opportunity to talk for several hours with a gentleman who was the manager for integrating the 'new' ATC system in the mid-1990s. Everyone likes to throw stones at government contractors, and they certainly aren't blameless. However, the reason he left that job, and the reason contracts often have large overruns, is: 1. Agency decides they want a new XYZ system 2. Agency writes specs and puts out for bid 3. Contractor bids on project based on specs 4. Non-tech agency managers/executives keep
    • ...and then you call it "POS"?

      How about credit where it's due. Could you design a system to handle the entire FAA flight plan traffic that would run for 20 years? A lot of lives depend on what you come up with.

  • Over-ambitious (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Exp315 (851386) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:00AM (#24900665)
    The last time the FAA decided to do a major overhaul, they got a little too ambitious. They awarded a $4.5 billion contract to IBM to produce the Advanced Automation System, a complete replacement of the antiquated air traffic control system. The project was to begin with a major overhaul of the ATC workstations and human interface, looking at all the ideas engineers and air traffic controllers had to make the system better and safer. After 2 years IBM had blown through $2 billion and the only thing they had really accomplished was to replace the 1960s-vintage hardware with more recent gear. It was clear that it would take >$15 billion and >10 years to complete the project at the rate they were going, so the FAA cancelled the rest of the project. The less expensive $500 million version in Canada (CAATS, awarded to IBM's unsuccessful competitor Hughes Aircraft), was no more successful. Lesson learned: ATC system are *complicated*. They require near 100% reliability, and human lives depend on them. When they fail (as they must always do eventually), human controllers must be able to smoothly and safely pick up the entire workload in mid-flight, and then smoothly transition back to computer control when possible. Designing and implemnting this system is a challenge comparable to going to the moon.
    • The FAA should contract the work out to Google. Crazy you say? Compared to IBM, Google has proven they can manage massive amounts of data extremely quickly in a highly available environment. Call me crazy though.
  • They are fixing it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 06, 2008 @11:01AM (#24900669)

    I was an intern this summer at the FAA Technical Center. They are currently working on an overhaul of the national air space. The system that crashed a few weeks ago (the NADIN system) is in the middle of being replaced by NADIN II. They were testing it this summer. Also, look up the capstone program, its an effort to replace the radar based navigation with a GPS based system. ADS-B is a huge part of that, with the teams working on it winning the Collier award.

  • Transponder codes tell ATC what the manufacturer of a particular aircraft is. Our museum's B-17 has had a couple instances where a curious ATC will ask why his radar is showing a Boeing aircraft cruising along at 4000ft and moving at 150kts.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by BarefootClown (267581)

      Transponder codes tell ATC what the manufacturer of a particular aircraft is.

      No, transponder codes tell ATC what your transponder code is (yes, I know that's a tautology). Any other information--such as a type designator or a tail number--is entered into the system by a controller and associated with your squawk code. The transponder only reports a number (four octal digits, for a total of 4096 possible codes), and altitude if in Mode C (Mode S is rare enough yet to be overlooked).

      Our museum's B-17 has had a couple instances where a curious ATC will ask why his radar is showing a Boeing aircraft cruising along at 4000ft and moving at 150kts.

      Because (nearly) all Boeing aircraft have type designators that start with "B." The controller may n

  • by FlyingGuy (989135) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (yuggniylf)> on Saturday September 06, 2008 @12:40PM (#24901429)

    It it was only true!

    There are so many points of failure in a system this complex, that it simply boggles the minds of the best architects we have out there.

    Discloser... I am a pilot, I deal with Air Traffic Control and all the problems that they have

    Let's begin with a single aircraft that will fly a from point A to point B. The flight is scheduled to leave at 0600Z from point A and arrive at point B at 1200Z for a total of 6 hours of flight time. The aircraft will have an SOA ( speed of advance ) of 600 kts ( nautical miles per hour ) and fly at 30,000 feet. Given this data the aircraft will cover 3600 nautical miles.

    Given those parameters, it is simple to create and appropriate data structure that will represent the aircraft in question, allow us to create a series of data points to describe it's theoretical route, and predict where that aircraft is at any given moment with mathematical precision. In short it boils down to a rather simple database problem. Most any database cooker can come up with a set of queries to predict where crossing routes and position problems will be when you add more then one flight to the problem.

    All of this will work just fine, right up until reality rears it's ugly head.

    The cruise or en route portion of a flight is pretty much as simple as I have described, with the exception of having to readjust things based on headwinds, aircraft performance and other factors that may or may not change during the duration of the flight. We have gotten pretty good at predicting what the wind will be like at the planned altitude of the flight, but there are occasions when we are flat out wrong and have to make adjustments. If the winds at say 30,000 ft are not as predicted then to maintain the SOA the pilot needs to change altitude. So we can either propose a change, take that bit of data and run it through a "what if" calculation and then tell the pilot yes or no based on the result which will tell us if that action will cause a potential crossing problem with another flight, or have the software check all the flights currently in the system and have it give us an altitude that will not cause a crossing situation that is as close as possible to the desired altitude while maintaining a safety margin.

    The real problem exists at the airports. Things get delayed, weather problems, mechanical problems, passenger problems, luggage problems, you name it, it is going to happen at one point or another. It backs the system up and then the simple database problem turns into the "Traveling Salesman Problem" from hell.

    Let us consider a very probable occurrence..... Plane A is sitting at the gate getting serviced for the next flight. The fuel truck rolls up to full up the plane and the fueler gets out, gets his hoses out, plugs them into the fueling connection on the ground and connection on the plane. He looks at his manifest that reads 30,000 lbs of JET-A for this plane, he sets the controls on the fuel truck appropriately and starts pumping. For some reason when the meter reads 29,670 fuel starts spilling from the wing! His "Oh Fuck Light" goes of in his head and he runs for the truck to shut off fuel flow but by the time he makes it the 30 feet from where he is watching to make sure his connection is not leaking the meter now reads 29,980. So you have just spilled around 300 lbs ( about 50 gallons ) of fuel all through the wing and onto the ground. So this plane is not going ANYWHERE for at least the next couple of hours AT LEAST.

    With this little problem, and it has happened to me things start to avalanche very quickly. I need another plane, another gate and I have to get the passengers and their luggage off of this plane, to the other plane at another gate, hint hint, this does not happen quickly. We are now occupying two gates and we are going to depart late, more then likely over an hour late if not a more.

    So now the arriving flight that was supposed to park at the gate where the airpla

    • Well, I'd sum up your anecdote up as a single, well-formed condition in such a system: DELAY.
      Ofcourse approaching an optimized schedule and maintaining safe-route-prediction based on a constantly changing working-set does imply an array of a hard, greedy problems (travelling salesman, knapsack, you name it) but in the end it boils down to raw number-crunching power.

      I mean, the current system (from the 70s?) can do it. I see no reason why an equal, or rather, a better system could not be created.
      There's real

    • by thogard (43403)

      Your description of the data structures needed seems to be covered in every OOD book... too bad the air traffic control system isn't concerned about planes but air space.
      I'll try to point out why this problem is much harder than it looks with some other info.
      The old system is based on allocating slots which most people don't seem to understand. Say your doing a low flight from STL to MKC (250 miles or so). There will be several slots allocated. You tell ATC when you expect to take off and the speed and th

  • Ohhh - the replacement system won't be in place till the end of 2008.

    Ah, as in 3 months? Not too bad - mus mean they are almost done. The hardware will go into place, be tested for weeks before it's turned on etc.

  • This is the problem with a federal agency being in charge of things! In order to upgrade the system, the taxpayer will have to pay additional taxes, or lose out because money has been re-budgeted from one project to another.

    This is at the expense of every taxpayer, not just the ones who utilize the air travel.

    The system should be privatized, but set to certain statutory standards of operation and interoperability. I'm not saying that airlines have to run it, but it should not be the FAA.

    • by FlyingGuy (989135)

      I am all for privatization, right up to the point where there is a profit motive.

      The nuclear Navy has a perfect safety record, not one reactor failure ( think 3 mile island ) ever yet nuclear power with a profit motive has a rather spotty record aye?

      I have no problem with having a nuclear power plant in my hood as long as the plant itself is designed and built without a profit motive, because LOTS of lives are at stake.

      I would have no problem with the ATC system being privatized as long as there is no profi

  • Try Subsystem (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tom's a-cold (253195) on Saturday September 06, 2008 @01:47PM (#24902033) Homepage
    I used to design air-traffic control systems.

    The title and text of the parent post are inconsistent. The article is about the failures and obsolescence of the flight-plan system, but the discussion of radars, etc, in the text of the post is about other parts of the air-traffic control system. The flight-plan system interfaces to the part of the system that synthesizes radar data and allows communication from controllers to aircraft, but it is not that system. The reason for the interface is so you can do correlation of observed aircraft ID data, positions and position history with flight plans that have been filed. Then, if a plane goes off its flight path, the controllers can warn them and start emergency measures, which includes handing off to the air force.

    The amount of data in a flight plan is pretty small, and the volume of messaging is on the order of a few million per year. Conceptually, NADIN is little more than a guaranteed-delivery email system. Next time they build the system they should consider routing over the Internet (of course using encryption) as a backup communication path. And there's also a huge amount that's been learned about system redundancy and scalability in the past few decades. The 99.9% uptime mentioned in the article is piss-poor for such a critical system. That's 8.76 hours per year of downtime. I delivered military systems in the 80's that had far better uptime. It wasn't even good in its own time.

    I worked on both military and civilian air traffic control systems. The FAA and their consultants I met had that dangerous combination of arrogance and pig-ignorance that makes failure inevitable. They knew next to nothing about user interfaces, and had worse understanding of engineering tradeoffs than the average private sector middle manager (and that's pretty bad). By contrast, a good percentage of US Air Force officers involved in ATC actually knew what they were talking about. The FAA controllers I met were also shockingly ignorant of the capabilities and limitations of their systems, and some of their processes were there for historic reasons that no longer made sense. It was like dealing with overpaid DMV counter staff. It scares the hell out of me that people's lives depend on decisions that these knuckleheads make.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by PPH (736903)

      I worked on both military and civilian air traffic control systems. The FAA and their consultants I met had that dangerous combination of arrogance and pig-ignorance that makes failure inevitable. They knew next to nothing about user interfaces, and had worse understanding of engineering tradeoffs than the average private sector middle manager (and that's pretty bad).

      That situation has occurred by design. I've worked on a number of government programs, on the supplier side and I've seen the same thing.

      By contrast, a good percentage of US Air Force officers involved in ATC actually knew what they were talking about.

      Until Haliburton, or some other contractor gets their foot in the door to operate the system on behalf of the AF. This is not likely, but its a useful idea to illustrate what happens in other branches of the gov't.

      1. Convince Congress that private business can do the job better and for less money.
      2. Bid the support contract.
      3. Have your contacts in Congress complain that it is
      • While I'm not a fan of government incompetancy, I don't want Air Traffic Control run as a for-profit enterprise. Lockheed Martin can barely provide weather briefings to private pilots.
    • by mcrbids (148650)

      Currently, as the CTO of a small software company, I've had some experience dealing with coordinating millions of records per day, in a dynamically load-balanced, auto-failover variably sized computing cluster. It's been working amazingly well, and developing the ability to deliver performance at this level has been hugely rewarding on a very personal level.

      If you were hosting an application, how could you actually provide 100x your current hosting capacity in 30 days?

      The problem requires very careful consi

  • The FAA suffers from a number of problems specific to government IT systems.

    As with private (corporate) systems, there is a tendency to keep existing systems running with duct tape, bubble gum and whatever until the cost of failures and inefficiency becomes intolerable. But unlike private systems, the red tape one needs to plow through to get anything changed is orders of magnitude greater. All acquisitions must be put out for bid. The terms are controlled by a rats nest of laws and regulations. Laws that a

  • There is probably a Microsoft Windows Server solution for this situation, using products from the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Family. Combining high uptime and ease-of-use, Microsoft Windows Server 2008 is ideal for mission-critical, sensitive systems like this. It will also lower the system's TCO.
  • Actually, the unique ID from a mode S transponder is not used for anything by the FAA's air traffic control system except for allowing it to send the position and direction of nearby aircraft to a cockpit display. The callsign is not retained in the system at all. My airplane's mode S transponder was about $2500 more than the same model of mode C transponder, and while having traffic information is nice, I'm not sure I'd make the same decision again knowing what I do now.

  • I was privileged in the past to visit the main ATC hub in the UK, and there they described the systems they used. They had a LOT of redundant systems but they were old, in fact in computing terms, some of it was ancient.

    The head controller showing us around summed up the problem as this. As much as they would like to have new technology, it has to be tested and tested and tested to the point they could say the equipment is VERY reliable. Suppose they got a system using Pentium processors - the ones with the

  • Hey, let's try just changing administrations and giving the FAA new bosses who aren't Republicans. It's worth trying at FEMA and the Department of Justice. Since the last 8 years have seen so much Republican involvement in America's aviation industry, we've probably got nothing left to lose at FAA, either.

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