Just days after Southwest Airlines' Titanic holiday meltdown, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all departures nationwide for nearly two hours. The reason? A critical safety system, called NOTAMs, collapsed. The aged pilot-notification operation created a full day of chaos around the nation. We'll learn more about the government failure in the weeks and months ahead, but here is how we have covered it in real time. Read up from the bottom for context.
1/12/23, 2:30PM ET, THURSDAY
A New Flight Meltdown!
This Time It's Nationwide
BACK TO 'NORMAL,' WHATEVER THAT IS
Here is an update on yesterday's FAA meltdown and current conditions: Good news: Today seems like a "normal" flying day with delays and cancellations mostly due to weather issues. Bad news: Yesterday was as awful as I warned you it would be.
First, that good news: As of 2pm ET, FlightStats.com is showing about 2,300 delays and about 125 cancellations around the United States. That indicates little or no direct hangover from yesterday's NOTAMs nightmare. So fly with whatever confidence you can normally muster. But be aware that there are weather-related delays with which to contend.
Yesterday, of course, was an epic horror show. There were nearly 11,000 delays and more than 1,350 cancellations. Although the ground hold imposed by the FAA lasted less than two hours--from about 7:15am to 8:45am Eastern time--delays and cancellations cascaded throughout the day. If you wonder why that happened, consider: When the grounding ended yesterday morning, airports' delayed flights all needed to be sent to runways for departure. You can't just launch them all at once. That clogged the system for hours. And as flights departed very late, they arrived late, thus delaying the next wave of flights using those aircraft. Hence a full day of messy schedule patches, make-dos, irate customers and grunts of resignation.
What caused it all? According to the FAA, a single corrupted database file brought down the entire Notice to Air Mission (NOTAMs) system. It's the notification network that alerts pilots to safety issues such as runway closures and equipment problems and advises on the best cruising altitudes and other aeronautic realities. It's also technically illegal to fly without a working NOTAMs system, but there are workarounds permitted.
What we know is that the NOTAMs system began failing as early as Tuesday afternoon and continued to act up through the evening. By the early hours of yesterday morning, the system failed completely. By daybreak on the East Coast, the patches and workarounds were overloaded. That led the FAA to ground departures for about two hours until the NOTAMs systems came back up.
This wasn't a needle in the haystack kind of thing, however. There is some salient background:
In most of the world, NOTAMs stands for Notice to Airmen. But the FAA last year quietly changed the nomenclature to Notice to Air Missions, presumably to make it gender neutral.
OLD AND BUSTED
The NOTAMs system is based on decades-old hardware and software and is long in the technological tooth. An upgrade is probably three-to-five years away. And, yes, there are pictures floating around social media today of pilots and first officers getting their NOTAMs from dot-matrix printers.
The FAA, the Department of Transportation and the White House all insist that the NOTAMs outage was organic and there are no indications of a Cyberattack. Yet Canada's NOTAMs system went wonky yesterday afternoon, too, although Canadian regulators did not feel the need to ground any flights. The outage in the Canadian NOTAMs system was attributed to a hardware issue.
WHO'S THE BOSS?
The FAA has been without an Administrator, the top position, since the resignation of Trump-era appointee Steve Dickson in March, 2022. President Biden in July appointed Phil Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport. But he never received a Senate hearing because some senators don't like his relative lack of aviation experience and others dislike Washington's involvement with a public-corruption scandal dating to his days running the Los Angeles transit agency. Biden renominated Washington this month--a formality for consideration by the new Senate--but no hearings are scheduled. The post of FAA Administrator requires Senate approval.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
The FAA is chronically underfunded and it's a bipartisan decision. There's no glory in funding the FAA. The agency's current budget is $18.5 billion, which is below 2004 levels when adjusted for inflation. This despite massive increases in passenger traffic and the number of aircraft operated by U.S. airlines and foreign carriers operating on U.S. soil.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Two decades ago, Congress funded a project called NextGen to upgrade FAA and other government systems related to commercial aviation. The progress has been glacial and results have fallen far below expectations and promises of new efficiency. A 2021 Inspector General's report on NextGen
was not kind to the process.
1/11/23, 7:30AM ET, WEDNESDAY
BUCKLE UP, FOLKS--OR DON'T FLY
Buckle up, as Bette Davis once said in a different context, It's going to be a bumpy ride. A crucial FAA computer system went offline in the predawn hours of the East Coast and a nationwide ground stop on departures is in place until 9am ET. Aircraft already in the sky may continue to their destination, but nothing has departed since around 7am although some flights are being cleared to operate at Newark and Atlanta.
The system--Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAMs--is used to alert pilots to hazards such as closed runways, airport-equipment issues and the like. It is unwise for flights to operate without a functioning NOTAMs.
Look, you're savvy flyers and you know this: Even if the FAA gets NOTAMs back online by 9am, it's going to be a brutal day of long delays and cancellations. It'll only get worse as the delays cascade from East to West during the day. Best bet: Defer all travel today if you can. Listen to Bette ...