Mainframe software glitch grounds flights in Los Angeles

A software-upgrade glitch is being blamed for sending air-traffic control systems at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) off-line early this morning, causing a nationwide stoppage of all flights that were scheduled to land at or depart from the airport during a four-hour period.

Technicians loading new software at the Los Angeles air-traffic control center caused a mainframe host computer to crash at 6:58 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, said Fraser Jones, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Association (FAA). The system was partially restored at 11:15 a.m. and fully restored by 1:05 p.m., he added.

The exact cause of the problem is under investigation, Jones said. Another FAA spokesman said the glitch occurred during an upgrade of software used as part of a system that processes radar data.

The Los Angeles air-traffic control center is in Palmdale, Calif., and is one of 20 such facilities that the FAA operates across the country for handling high-altitude flights operating at 17,000 feet and above. FAA officials won't know the full number of flights that were delayed by the software glitch until tomorrow, Jones said.

However, he added that air-traffic controllers at LAX can guide the landings and departures of approximately 84 flights per hour under normal circumstances. No flights took off or landed during the four hours that the system was down. During the period when the system had been partially restored, Jones said, the controllers could only handle 64 flights per hour.

Rob Enderle, a San Jose-based analyst at Giga Information Group Inc., had planned to travel to Los Angeles this morning to attend a conference. But his flight, slated to depart from San Jose at 8 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, was grounded on the tarmac due to the computer problem at LAX.

The plane eventually took off nearly four hours late, but Enderle already had decided to leave the plane because he had missed his scheduled appointment in Los Angeles. "It goes to show that the more complex a software system gets, the more likely there are to be problems down the line," he said.

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