January 30, 2023

The Federal Aviation Administration now says contract employees inadvertently deleted critical files, causing the computer outage last week that grounded air traffic nationwide.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now for the latest on that computer system outage last week that temporarily grounded all airline flights nationwide. Well, the Federal Aviation Administration says its investigation finds that contract employees inadvertently deleted files while working on the system. The FAA says the mishap was unintentional, but many in the aviation industry say the incident exposes broader problems with the FAA’s aging technology. NPR’s David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The FAA says its review of last week’s system outage determined that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while trying to fix problems with the database. In a statement, the agency says it has found no evidence of a cyberattack or malicious intent, adding that the FAA made the necessary repairs to the system and has taken steps to make the NOTAM system more resilient. NOTAM stands for Notices To Air Missions. They’re critical messages alerting pilots to potential hazards along their flight path. The system failure led the FAA to impose a ground stop on all departing flights last Wednesday morning. It was the first nationwide ground stop since September 11, 2001. And even though it lasted about 90 minutes, the incident forced airlines to cancel more than 1,300 flights that day and delayed more than 11,000 more. And many in the aviation industry say the computer failure highlights how much of the FAA’s infrastructure is overtaxed and out of date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT KIRBY: I think this ought to be a wake-up call for all of us in aviation – something that many of us in aviation have been saying for a long time – that the FAA needs more resources.

SCHAPER: That’s United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby on a conference call with reporters and analysts Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRBY: The hard facts are the FAA’s budget, in real terms, is lower than it was 20 years ago. But the amount of work that they’ve been asked to do is significantly higher. And so they’ve had to rob Peter to pay Paul.

SCHAPER: Kirby and other airline industry leaders are calling on Congress and the White House to better fund and support the FAA. The computer failure is not only drawing attention to the FAA’s aging technology and infrastructure but to NOTAMs themselves and how the notices are distributed and formatted.

MARK ZEE: Unfortunately, they really date back to, you know, the early 1900s.

SCHAPER: Mark Zee is a former European airline pilot and air traffic controller. He says NOTAMs are confusingly typed out in all caps and full of jargony acronyms and abbreviations.

ZEE: It’s a mess. And it’s a great word to describe it. It’s a mess. It’s a giant mess.

SCHAPER: And Zee says pilots have to review hundreds of the messages before each flight when only two or three might be truly relevant. He and others in the industry are working with aviation authorities around the world to reform the NOTAM system. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLE WRAY SONG, “HOLD ON”)

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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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