For the first time since 9/11, all U.S. flights were grounded on January 11 due to a failure of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM).
- So far, the NOTAM outage appears to have been caused by a corrupted file in the system that affected both the primary and backup systems—though officials are still investigating, NBC reports.
- Other officials told USA Today that the system failure could likely be attributed to outdated technology that supports the air-traffic-control system. A computer glitch could be the root of the issue.
- While officials continue to investigate the true cause of the disastrous system failure, lawmakers are calling for answers. Senator Maria Cantwell, head of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), announced that the committee will investigate the incident.
- “The No. 1 priority is safety. As the Committee prepares for FAA reauthorization legislation, we will be looking into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages. The public needs a resilient air transportation system,” Cantwell said in a statement.
- Others placed the blame on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Senator Ted Cruz, also on the Commerce Committee, said, “FAA’s inability to keep an important safety system up and running is completely unacceptable and just the latest example of dysfunction within the Department of Transportation.”
Why it’s news
In 2021, a Transportation Department Office of Inspector General report found that the FAA’s infrastructure update was facing challenges. The Next Generation Air Transportation System “is the FAA’s ongoing multibillion-dollar infrastructure program to modernize the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), which is the world’s busiest and most complex. Rather than simply making minor upgrades to aging infrastructure, the FAA and its partners are implementing major new technologies and capabilities, leading to a new way of managing air traffic using Trajectory Based Operations,” according to the FAA website.
The Inspection General report said, “FAA has struggled to integrate key NextGen technologies and capabilities due to extended program delays that caused ripple effect delays with other programs.”
The FAA still practices extremely outdated systems, including air-traffic controllers tracking aircrafts using strips of paper. However, phasing out this practice and adopting a more modern system will take until 2029 to complete, Reuters reports.
In 2022, the FAA was allotted nearly $5 billion for updates to its systems. Last April, it began investing around $1 billion into updates and repairs. But updates have been slow. In 2020, the FAA claimed it had difficulty hiring technical employees quickly and effectively.
The struggle to update systems isn’t new to the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA. As recently as 2019, DOT was one of three agencies that failed to produce a modernization plan, Reuters reports.
Backing up a bit
Not long after the Southwest fiasco resulted in thousands of canceled Southwest flights, all U.S. flights were grounded.
The order to ground all flights came after the NOTAMs failed. NOTAMs is used to share important information between pilots, including runway closures, air shows, and military exercises.
Without access to this information, the FAA grounded all flights until the system came back online. Flights were grounded for approximately 90 minutes. More than 8,000 delays and 1,000 cancellations were reported.
President Joe Biden ordered an investigation into the system failure. So far, there is no evidence of a cyberattack.
Air-traffic control isn’t the only problem for the department of transportation. Earlier this week, passengers on an Amtrak train traveling from Washington, D.C., to Florida were trapped onboard for more than 29 hours after a freight train derailed.
Panicked passengers began calling 911 after assuming the train was being held hostage.
After an extended stop, employees “timed out,” which meant they were no longer legally allowed to operate the train. Passengers had to wait for a new crew to arrive on the scene. However, the train was not prepared for extended passengers and had limited food supplies on board.
The train eventually arrived at its destination Wednesday morning, almost a full day after the intended arrival time, The Guardian reports.