In the Face of Glitches: The Need for Redundancy and Human Backup in Air Traffic Control Systems



A recent software glitch in the air traffic control (ATC) system caused disruptions but did not result in any catastrophic incidents. This incident raises concerns about the need for redundancy and human backup in critical systems like air traffic control. While the glitch was considered a minor issue, it serves as a reminder of the challenges and complexities involved in automating the roles of pilots and air traffic controllers.

Software Redundancy and Independent Development

The incident highlighted the importance of software redundancy and independent development in critical systems. The author illustrates this by referring to their experience working on the 757 stab trim system at Boeing. In that system, two avionics computers with different algorithms, programming languages, CPUs, and code written by separate teams were employed to ensure that bugs in one box would not cause the other to fail in the same way. This redundant system reduced the chances of failures that could potentially impact the aviation industry.

Similarly, air traffic control systems should consider adopting redundancy through the implementation of a 2oo3 system, where three independently developed systems concur at any given time. This redundancy would help maintain the system’s availability in the event of a failure in one system. Human backup, on the other hand, is impractical given the complexities and resourcing challenges involved.

The Successful Handling of the Glitch

Although the ATC system in question was a 1oo1 system, meaning it had no backup, the incident did not result in any catastrophes. While many people were inconvenienced, air traffic remained under control throughout the event. This success in handling the glitch demonstrates the resilience of the ATC system and the expertise of human operators involved in managing the situation.

Automation vs. Human Intervention

The incident serves as a reminder of the vast complexity involved in designing and operating avionics systems. The author highlights the challenges they faced while attempting to develop a simple starfox game clone, emphasizing the difficulty of accurately programming complex systems.

This complexity underscores the importance of human expertise and intervention in critical systems like air traffic control. The incident proves that we still have a long way to go before automating the roles of pilots and air traffic controllers completely. The ability to handle in-flight equipment failure, medical emergencies, and diversions due to weather conditions or incidents requires the combination of human decision-making and sophisticated automation.


The recent ATC software glitch highlighted the necessity of redundancy and human backup in critical systems. The incident emphasized the importance of independent development, where multiple systems concur to provide uninterrupted service. While the glitch did not result in catastrophic consequences, it served as a reminder of the complexity and challenges involved in automating crucial tasks in the aviation industry.

As technology continues to advance, it is crucial to strike a balance between automation and human intervention to ensure the safety and efficiency of the airspace. Redundancy and human expertise should remain vital components of air traffic control systems to mitigate the risks associated with unforeseen glitches and ensure the continued functioning of the aviation industry.

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