The Federal Aviation Administration blamed breakdowns in technology and said a preliminary examination traced a computer outage to a damaged database file, but the agency is continuing work to pinpoint the cause of a failure in a key federal safety system that led to widespread disruptions in domestic air travel for the second time in two weeks.
The White House and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said they do not suspect a cyberattack or other external activity caused the 90-minute nationwide flight stoppage, which was the first of its kind since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Buttigieg said the FAA made the rare decision to shut down flight departures for about 90 minutes — a decision that wreaked havoc on the system much of the day — out of an abundance of caution.
“It’s been another challenging day for U.S. aviation,” said Buttigieg, who has ignored warnings from more than 30 state attorney generals that have for months been predicting the disaster that stranded thousands of Americans during the holiday season.
The US Department of Transportation under Buttigieg, a neoliberal cabinet secretary with presidential ambitions, has done virtually nothing in response and is still largely passive.
The FAA ordered airlines to pause all domestic departures from about 7:15 a.m. until 9 a.m. Eastern Time to allow the agency to validate the integrity of flight and safety information.
About an hour after the FAA reported widespread problems that grounded flights, it said departures were “resuming at Newark Liberty (EWR) and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) airports due to air traffic congestion in those areas.”
“The FAA is continuing a thorough review to determine the root cause of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system outage,” said a statement issued at 6:30 pm. “Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyber attack. The FAA is working diligently to further pinpoint the causes of this issue and take all needed steps to prevent this kind of disruption from happening again.”
The failure of the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions system, or NOTAMs, came days after a meltdown at Southwest Airlines before Christmas that crippled flight operations, raising more questions about whether airlines and the agency that oversees them are doing enough to invest in and upgrade their technology infrastructure.
According to an FAA bulletin, the outage of the NOTAMs service began at 3:28 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.
Lawmakers pledged to probe the latest disruption as they begin work this year on a major package of legislation tied to FAA funding, but the federal agency responsible for thousands of flight delays has not had a Senate-confirmed director in place for nearly a year.
President Biden’s nominee for director of the FAA has yet to receive a confirmation hearing.
Billy Nolen has served as the acting director of the agency since April 2022. He had to cancel a planned trip to Mexico Thursday that was to review progress on the country’s plan to recover a coveted air safety rating after its U.S.-issued classification was downgraded in 2021.
The NOTAM system is critical to flight operations. It tells pilots essential information needed before takeoff, such as runway conditions at destination airports, weather en route, and even real-time safety alerts during flight.
“Think of the NOTAM system as kind of an aviation neural network with the FAA in the center broadcasting to everybody who’s on it,” said former commercial pilot John Nance. “If you don’t have all that information, it almost boggles the mind as to how much trouble you could get into.”
NOTAM messages could include information about lights being out on a certain runway, or a tower near an airport not having the required safety lights working, or an air show taking place in the air space nearby.
“It’s like telling a trucker that a road is closed up ahead. It’s critical information,” said aviation consultant Mike Boyd.
Boyd and others said Wednesday’s problems are a sign that the FAA’s computer systems need to be upgraded.
“Today’s FAA catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel and tourism industries. “Americans deserve an end-to-end travel experience that is seamless and secure. And our nation’s economy depends on a best-in-class air travel system.”
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