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Other View: Another near miss for the nation's tattered transportation infrastructure

This is the second time in two weeks that major disruptions have occurred in the air transportation system related to aging computer systems that experts have long warned are in need of an upgrade.

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A traveler looks at a flight information board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Jan. 11, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.
Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS
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Perhaps not since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have the spacious skies over America been as empty as they were Wednesday morning when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all domestic flights grounded over a computer malfunction. The cause wasn’t immediately identified, but this is the second time in two weeks that major disruptions have occurred in the air transportation system related to aging computer systems that experts have long warned are in need of an upgrade.

What plagued Southwest Airlines in late December, experts say, was a computer and software system designed to handle 1990s-era scheduling. When it failed at the same time a major winter storm hit, Southwest suffered a meltdown that ruined the travel plans for millions of passengers and their families. Then, on Wednesday, more than 7,000 flights reportedly were delayed or canceled after an FAA flight-safety system completely shut down. That occurred around 1 a.m. St. Louis time and lasted until around 8 a.m. Passenger exasperation abounded at airports across the country.

The traveling public should hold onto that sense of exasperation and channel it toward bringing House Republicans to their senses. They have declared war on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021. During the Trump administration, repeated attempts to focus Congress on the need to upgrade the nation’s tattered infrastructure was met with a resounding ho-hum by many Republicans. Year after year, President Donald Trump heralded “infrastructure week,” only to be met with jokes and eyerolls by congressional Republicans. They were outraged that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled to Kentucky with President Joe Biden last week to celebrate works enabled by the bill that Biden signed into law in 2021. What some critics derided as the “so-called infrastructure bill” received only 13 Republican votes in the House and 18 in the Senate.

A big part of the problem is the misunderstanding that infrastructure is only about big spending on labor, concrete and rebar. It increasingly involves expensive computers and software necessary not just to manage complex air-traffic operations but also water, gas and electric-utility systems. Cargo-transportation systems rely heavily on computers and operating systems that allow cranes to load and offload containers remotely. Even farming is now heavily dependent on computer linkup to satellite ground positioning systems.

Not only do these systems need regular modernization and upgrades, they also need to be hardened to prevent foreign hackers from sabotaging networks to accomplish exactly what happened Wednesday: a systemwide shutdown that temporarily brought air travel to a standstill.

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Prominent Republicans spent Wednesday pointing fingers at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, but the problem extends far beyond him. And it won’t be solved if they spend time maneuvering for political advantage rather than working to ensure that what’s wrong gets fixed — before more disaster strikes.

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