By Tom Ozimek
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revealed the cause of a systems outage that on Jan. 11 led to a ground stop of thousands of flights and disrupted air travel across the United States.
The FAA has been probing the reasons behind the failure of a key pilot notification system operated by the agency since it went down earlier this month and caused disruption to over 11,000 flights.
The agency announced on Jan. 19 that its preliminary review of the matter indicates that contract staff “unintentionally deleted files” when transferring data between databases, leading to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system outage.
The snag took place when personnel were working “to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database,” the FAA said.
The federal agency added that it “has so far found no evidence of a cyber-attack or malicious intent.”
Thousands of flights across the United States were canceled or delayed on Jan. 11 after the NOTAM system broke down, stranding some planes on the ground for hours.
The outage showed how much U.S. air travel depends on the antiquated NOTAM system, which generates alerts that pilots and airlines dispatchers must review before a flight can take off. The notices include details about weather, runway closures or construction, and other information that could impact flight safety.
At one point, the system was telephone-based, with pilots having to call dedicated flight service stations for the information, but the system has moved online.
In the immediate aftermath of the outage, the FAA said it had “traced the outage to a damaged database file” and vowed to take steps to avoid another such failure.
In its Jan. 19 statement, the FAA said it has fixed the system and is working to make it more robust.
“The FAA made the necessary repairs to the system and has taken steps to make the NOTAM system more resilient,” the FAA stated. “The agency is acting quickly to adopt any other lessons learned in our efforts to ensure the continuing robustness of the nation’s air traffic control system.”
Experts Weigh In
Aviation insiders said they could not recall a system-wide outage of the notification system of such magnitude that was caused by a technological snag.
“Periodically there have been local issues here or there, but this is pretty significant historically,” Tim Campbell, a former senior vice president of air operations at American Airlines and now a consultant in Minneapolis, told The Associated Press.
Cambell also said that other FAA technologies are showing signs of age.
“So much of their systems are old mainframe systems that are generally reliable but they are out of date,” he said.
Michael Boyd, president and CEO of aviation consultancy The Boyd Group International, told CNBC that the outage shows a “very systemic problem” with the FAA and that the agency has fallen behind in keeping up its systems.
“There’s no excuse for this,” Boyd said, adding that “it’s going to get worse” unless the agency takes steps to improve its operations.
Aviation expert Kyle Bailey told Fox News that the NOTAM system is “not up to speed” and that “the longer this goes on, there’s going to be a ripple effect throughout the entire system,” leading to more flight delays and cancellations, “possibly for days.”
The problem, according to Bailey, is that the system is “layered and antiquated” and urgently needs an overhaul.
FAA officials have been involved in efforts to modernize the NOTAM system in recent years.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said that the NOTAM system is constantly being updated but it’s not clear that it’s outdated.
“We will not allow anything to take place that is not safe,” Buttigieg told reporters earlier in January. “This is precisely why our focus right now is on understanding, identifying, and correcting anything related to the root cause of how this happened in the first place.”
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said there’s no excuse for the NOTAM malfunction and blamed it on a Transportation Department and FAA “failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system.”
The infrastructure bill Congress passed last year allocated around $5 billion for air traffic control facilities, with some congressional staffers suggesting some of that money could be spent on equipment upgrades that would bolster the NOTAM system. Buttigieg said that any NOTAM upgrade might have to wait for a new funding bill that allocates money to the FAA.
“I think this gives us a really important data point and a really important moment to understand what we’re going to need moving forward,” Buttigieg told reporters.