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Computer glitch causes havoc at Northeast airports

A computer problem grounds planes in the Northeast, potentially snarling air traffic for the remainder of the day.

A computer problem grounded planes in the Northeast this morning, potentially snarling air traffic for the remainder of the day.

A Federal Aviation Administration representative said the problem does not appear to be related to the Y2K computer bug. The problem occurred about 6:15 a.m. EST at Washington Center in Leesburg, Va., which handles much of the air traffic for the Northeast.

The problem was related to communications between the main computer at Washington Center and an unidentified peripheral device. As error messages mounted, they overloaded the main computer, forcing the operations center to shift to a backup system.

"We don't know what the cause of this problem is yet. Obviously we will be investigating," said FAA representative Las Door. "It is also six days past the new year, [and] there is no reason to believe it is Y2K-related. But we are still investigating."

The FAA temporarily grounded planes at all airports in Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; metropolitan Washington, D.C.; Teterboro, N.J.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

"The backup system is perfectly functional, perfectly safe, but it is not nearly as fast [as the main system]," Door said. "Consequently, they had to first slow down traffic and ultimately, around 8:30 [a.m. EST], stop planes from taking off at a lot of the airports."

Washington Center restored the main computer at 9:49 a.m. EST, "and they're allowing planes to take off again, and the center is handling traffic normally," Door said. But Door warned that air traffic delays would likely continue throughout the day because of the number of airports affected.

Although some feared that the Y2K bug would snarl computers and cause planes to fall from the sky Jan. 1, the FAA as of today has seen no real Y2K-related computer problems.

The Y2K bug is a computer glitch that can cause affected computers to mistake 2000 for 1900. The bug has yet to disrupt any key infrastructure systems; so far, only a few minor problems affecting individual computer systems have been reported, and those were fixed within a few hours or so, according to government officials and industry insiders.