Almost 10,000 flights in the United States were delayed or cancelled Wednesday morning as a technical issue forced the Federal Aviation Administration to halt departures nationwide for about 90 minutes.
The disruption was caused by an outage in the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, which alerts pilots to safety issues at and around the country’s airports.
The FAA has not yet identified a specific cause of the problem, but experts told USA TODAY that the United States’ air traffic control system frequently relies on outdated technology to keep things moving, and that a computer glitch of some kind is likely to be to blame.
What exactly is the NOTAM system?
A Notice to Air Missions provides real-time safety information about flight operations and airports to pilots and other flight personnel.
NOTAMs list potential hazards and conditions that could affect flights, such as runway construction or possible icing, as well as changes to an aeronautical facility or flight service.
Before beginning any flight, pilots must consult NOTAMs.
According to the FAA, a NOTAM “states the abnormal status of a component of the National Airspace System (NAS) – not the normal status,” and NOTAMs “are not known far enough in advance to be publicised by other means.”
What was the cause of the NOTAM failure on Wednesday?
The FAA stated that it is investigating the issue but has not yet issued an official cause. However, experts told USA TODAY that IT problems are most likely to blame.
According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, he has directed “an after-action process to determine root causes” and make recommendations on how to address them.
“Similar to what Southwest experienced last month with difficulties in using an antiquated system to handle a major weather disruption to the system, it’s highly likely that the FAA saw this problem exacerbated because they were running on older technologies,” said Laurie Garrow, a civil engineering professor at Georgia Tech who specialises in aviation.
Mark Dombroff, an aviation lawyer and Fox Rothschild partner who previously worked for the FAA and the Department of Justice, compared the NOTAM system to the computers we all use on a daily basis.
“Our systems continue to crash,” he said. “You shut down your system and restart it… The system returns, and you continue to operate it.”
However, he added that the FAA will look into the root cause to ensure that it does not happen again.
According to another expert, Wednesday’s incident highlights the need to make the NOTAM system more redundant.
“It wouldn’t matter if someone kicked the cord or if the server failed for some reason. If it’s a single point of failure, it’s likely to happen again,” said Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, New York. “I’d say the same thing about Southwest’s crew reassignment system, but saying it is easier than doing it… In both cases, FAA validation of the replacement system will be required while you continue to use the steam gauge version of that system.”
How can the FAA avoid a similar blunder in the future?
All of the experts who spoke with USA TODAY agreed that the FAA’s backend technology needs to be updated.
“I’m hoping it’s a call to Congress for more funding to modernise the air traffic control system,” Garrow said.
According to Arjun Garg, a former FAA chief counsel and partner at Hogan Lovells, the agency’s technology is typically complicated and often outdated as a result of government funding and implementation cycles.
“The lack of stable consistent funding when you’re on the federal government’s budget appropriations cycle significantly hampers the ability to conduct that kind of upgrade,” he said. “The FAA has an added complication” because its system must run continuously all day, every day, and upgrades must be performed while the system is still operational.
With the upcoming FAA reauthorization, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated during a press briefing Wednesday that the administration welcomes “Congress’ attention” on how to assist the agency in resolving the NOTAM issues.
Maria Cantwell, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, stated on Wednesday that the committee “will look into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages.”
What travellers should know
While the delays and cancellations caused by the NOTAM outage were obviously inconvenient for passengers, experts say the FAA prioritises safety above all else and that halting flights while the issue was resolved was the correct decision.
“I believe they have a good idea of what happened,” Dombroff said. “I have a feeling the system would not be returning to normal if they didn’t know what happened… I don’t think the FAA would have approached a situation like this with no idea what caused it and re-launching the system in this manner.”
He emphasised that passengers should feel safe boarding planes today, even if they are delayed.
“The FAA is the first to want to figure out what happened and prevent it from happening again,” he said. “We should celebrate the system’s quality and safety while acknowledging that it will not always work the way we want it to.”
Many airlines have also issued waivers to passengers whose flights were impacted, allowing them to change their travel plans without incurring fare differences or change fees.