Issues with the Notice To Air Mission system, or NOTAM, began on Tuesday afternoon. The problem is believed to have originated from a damaged database file. The FAA rebooted the system after failing to fix it and then ordered that all departing flights be halted. The order was in place until 9:00 on Wednesday morning.
This spurred a chain reaction of flight delays that ultimately saw more than 10,000 flights delayed and more than 1,300 flights canceled. So far on Thursday, a day after the incident, nearly 900 flights to, from and within the U.S. have been delayed and 91 have been canceled.
The nationwide ground stop, although rare, is a reminder of just how easily America’s aviation system can be brought to a screeching halt, causing significant inconvenience for hundreds of thousands of people.
Just a few weeks earlier, an internal platform at Southwest Airlines became overloaded in the wake of a slew of weather-related cancellations. The fiasco led to several days of delays and cancellations that are expected to cost the airline more than $800 million.
The FAA claims there is no evidence of a cyber attack, but this type of incident illustrates how someone with bad intentions could easily wreak havoc on the nation. It is interesting to note that both the primary and backup systems had somehow been fed the corrupted data file, a source told CNBC. The FAA said in a statement that it is “continuing a thorough review to determine the root cause” of the NOTAM failure.
Critics have long maintained that the FAA, which is tasked with safely managing the nation’s commercial air traffic, is underfunded and overworked. Among other issues, the agency has faced challenges updating aging processes and systems to stay on top of the latest advances in technology and keep pace with increased air travel. They also suffer from a lack of sufficient air traffic controllers and safety specialists.
The outage led to questions from lawmakers across the political spectrum, and it is expected that there will be hearings regarding providing the regulator with additional funding. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised to investigate, telling reporters: “When there’s a problem with a government system, we’re going to own it, we’re going to find it and we’re going to fix it.
"In this case, we had to make sure that there was complete confidence about the safety of flight operations, which is why there was the conservative but important step to have that pause and make sure everything was back up and running.”
Experts believe that the ripple effect of yesterday’s outage will be felt at least through Friday, and some airlines, such as United Airlines, are already warning travelers to continue looking out for further cancellations and delays.
Interestingly, Canada’s NOTAM system, which is operated by a private nonprofit known as Nav Canada who has been hired to run the country’s air traffic control system, also experienced a brief disruption on Wednesday that rendered it unable to send airlines any new updates. No delays occurred as a result. While Nav Canada is pinning the issue on a computer hardware failure and says that it does not think its outage is related to the one in the U.S., it is a remarkable coincidence that these normally very dependable systems failed in separate incidents in two neighboring countries on the same day.
Sources for this article include: