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Glitch in a FAA ERAM – GPS aided ATC caused a Flypocalypse

The East Coast air corridor was plagued by widespread delays and cancellations over the weekend. And technology was to blame for this ‘flypocalypse’.

A technical malfunction at an air traffic control center in Northern Virginia started the far-reaching saga of delays, cancellations and re-routings. The glitch was seemingly found in the Route Automation Modernisation computer system, or ERAM, which is the backbone of the Federal Aviation Administration’s large-scale efforts to overhaul the air traffic control.

ERAM uses satellite technology to manage the spacing between airplanes and their flight plans. Broadly, it is a part of the FAA’s NextGen system, which would replace radar with a GPS-based system for air traffic management. With the help of GPS, planes would be able to travel safely in packed skies, closer to other planes. Currently, planes are required to fly to way points before turning to a final destination. But, NextGen will allow them to fly direct routes. This direct routing will not only save billions of dollars in fuel costs, but also minimise pollution.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says that ERAM gives the agency a big boost in technological horsepower over the system it replaces. Huerta adds that this computer system enables each controller to handle more aircraft over a larger area, resulting in increased safety, capacity, and efficiency. It should be noted that ERAM was launched four years behind schedule and several million dollars over budget. But, considering that the US air industry is projected to serve one billion passengers annually by 2021, NextGen is exactly what is needed. Alaska Airlines Captain Sean Cassidy agrees.