FAA computer failure reflects growing burden on systems

Audits and previous incidents show the strain on the agency's capabilities

The Federal Aviation Administration identified a serious computer problem and repaired it within about four hours Nov. 19, but the resulting air traffic delays took hours to unwind. The snag, which prevented the automatic filing of flight plans into FAA's National Airspace Data Interchange Network, was traced to a software configuration problem within the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure in Salt Lake City.

The incident provoked fears about hackers and cyberattacks, which proved to be unfounded. But it also renewed worries about FAA's aging information technology. FAA systems in general have been troublesome recently. An incident in August 2008 delayed flights around the country. At the time, FAA said the incident was caused by a database mismatch that interfered with data transmission.

According to the Government Accountability Office, FAA’s systems are overburdened. Even in a recession, the air transportation system is straining to meet consumer demands, leading to delays or cancellations for one in five airline flights from January to October, according to an Oct. 28 report from GAO. The problems are expected to worsen as the economy recovers and travel increases.

To improve its capacity and efficiency while maintaining safety, FAA is moving to the Next Generation Air Transportation System, but it won't be complete until 2025. The improvements include integrated systems and procedures, aircraft performance capabilities, satellite-based surveillance and navigation, and network-centric operations. FAA will implement some of the features between 2012 and 2018, and some stakeholders have urged quicker deployments.

The NextGen Midterm Implementation Task Force issued a report in September that discussed several areas, including runway access, congestion relief, data communications and integrated air traffic management.

However, FAA faces several challenges in fulfilling NextGen's objectives, including adjusting its culture and business practices, GAO concluded. The main change is from a focus on system acquisition to an emphasis on integration and coordination, the report states.

NextGen would replace the radar-based air traffic control system in which data, communications and instructions flow to and from a handful of ground control facilities. Instead, FAA would use a satellite-based system that would allow pilots to locate other aircraft and communicate them and FAA controllers more efficiently. That would facilitate more efficient use of congested air space and airport facilities.

NextGen includes five major programs: Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, System-Wide Information Management, NextGen Data Communications, NextGen Network Enabled Weather and National Airspace Voice Switch.

Earlier this year, Hank Krakowski, chief operating officer of FAA's Air Traffic Organization, said implementing those systems alongside existing air traffic control systems will be complex.

“NextGen is an evolutionary process, and existing systems must be sustained as we transition,” he said. “NextGen builds on legacy systems to increase capability in today’s National Airspace System."

FAA's systems are vulnerable to attacks, even though the latest incident was apparently not one. In a May 4 audit, the inspector general’s staff was able to gain unauthorized access to FAA’s systems. The IG concluded in the report that FAA cannot fully prevent unauthorized access and does not have effective intrusion detection systems.

“In our opinion, unless effective action is taken quickly, it is likely to be a matter of when, not if, air traffic control systems encounter attacks that do serious harm to air traffic control operations,” Rebecca Leng, assistant IG for financial and information technology audits, wrote in the May 4 report.

In the report, she said FAA’s intrusion detection system is inadequate because it was deployed to only 11 of the hundreds of air traffic control facilities. In addition, FAA did not correct cyber incidents in a timely manner after detecting them.

“By exploiting these vulnerabilities, the public could gain unauthorized access to information stored on Web application computers,” the May 4 report states. “Further, through these vulnerabilities, internal FAA users (employees, contractors, industry partners, etc.) could gain unauthorized access to air traffic control systems because the Web applications often act as front-end interfaces (providing front-door access) to ATC systems. In addition, these vulnerabilities could allow attackers to compromise FAA user computers by injecting malicious code onto the computers.”

About the Authors

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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