January 28, 2023

A critical computer system of the Federal Aviation Administration failed, leading to the delays or cancellations of thousands of flights. The antiquated system is now functioning but questions remain.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Things are returning to normal now, but it was chaos once again at the nation’s airports this morning. A critical FAA system failed, and that failure led to a ground stop of all departing flights across the United States for several hours. The FAA got the system back online. Flights resumed around 9 o’clock Eastern but not before the outage forced airlines to delay, if not completely cancel, thousands of flights. Well, joining us from Chicago is NPR transportation correspondent David Schaper. And first of all, David, what is this FAA system that failed?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, this is called the NOTAM system, which stands for Notice to Air Missions. And it’s what the FAA uses to notify pilots and other airline and airport operations personnel of any potential hazards they might come across that could affect a flight. So these are notifications about things that might just be out of the ordinary or somewhat abnormal, like a certain runway being closed or a taxiway that’s under repair or there may be, like, airspace closures due to military exercises in certain areas, or they may even use it to communicate reports of turbulence or large flocks of birds since bird strikes can actually cause an engine failure. NOTAMs are critical safety – critical pieces of information for safety that pilots need to have. And that’s why when this system failed, the FAA instituted a complete ground stop for a good 90 minutes or so.

KELLY: Has it ever failed before?

SCHAPER: No. Experts I’ve talked to say they’ve never seen the NOTAM system go down like this before. And the impact on air travel today was significant – a complete ground stop of all departing flights for at least 90 minutes, which then caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations all day long. The only time in recent memory that there was a nation-wide ground stop of all departing aircraft longer than this was back on 9/11. The White House says there’s no evidence this outage was the result of a cyberattack. In fact, late today, the FAA issued a statement saying a preliminary investigation has traced the outage to a damaged database file. But it’s still not clear how that could bring the entire system and redundancies down.

Mike McCormick is a former safety official at the FAA who now teaches air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He says this system failure never put any flights at risk, but it does raise concerns.

MIKE MCCORMICK: The surprising part to me that after these years of upgrade and investment in a next-generation aviation system, how one – whatever it may be – problem cause this complete failure in the system. And there should never be a single point of failure.

SCHAPER: I should add that McCormick, as a former FAA official, says he has complete confidence in the agency’s technology and the upgrades that are underway. And he says they will find out what went wrong and fix any problems that may exist.

KELLY: Well, that’s reassuring. I’m glad he has complete confidence, but I can’t be the only one thinking back to the chaos over the holidays, between cold weather and the whole meltdown over at Southwest Airlines. That would seem to raise broader questions about the tech that is supporting our nation’s system of air travel.

SCHAPER: Well, certainly there are a lot of concerns about the airlines and their technology systems themselves. But when it comes to the FAA and the federal government’s investments in technology, there are those who say they haven’t spent enough and done enough in recent years as well. Republican Sam Graves, the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who is a pilot himself, issued a statement saying that this incident, quote, “highlights a huge vulnerability in our air transportation system,” adding that the DOT’s and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system is inexcusable. Senator Maria Cantwell, the Democratic chair of the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee, says she, too, is concerned and will hold hearings on the issue. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg raised his own concerns today on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: We need to design – in a field that’s changing a lot and is going to be changing a lot more in the years to come, we need to design a system that does not have those kind of vulnerabilities.

KELLY: All right. So that’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, one of many people who we were hearing from as we try to make sense of what happened today with our nation’s air travel. NPR’s David Schaper in Chicago, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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