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Friday, July 19, 2024

Senator Cantwell Calls for Immediate FAA Response on NOTAM Backup System Following Outage

Cantwell asked if the FAA could set up a true redundant server system that would allow for that file corruption that happened not to happen across the entire system.

On February 15, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, directed the Acting FAA Administrator to return within a week with an immediate plan for building a reliable, separate backup system to ensure true redundancy for the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system.  

Sen. Cantwell called the hearing to get to the bottom of the causes and impacts of FAA NOTAM system – and backup system – failure last month. On the morning of January 11, 2023, the FAA imposed a nation-wide ground stop that lasted for a little over an hour and a half — the first ground stop since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The action caused 1,300 flight cancellations and more than 9,500 flight delays.

“I don’t think we have true redundancy here,” Sen. Cantwell said to Acting Administrator Nolen near the end of the hearing. “So I want to see a plan from the FAA that examines the fact that the backup systems are still subject to the same kind of, if you want to call it human error, of deletion of files. You’re building a system to try to firewall that from not happening again. But it could be a different problem, and we still have a backup system that would be affected. So until we get the true modernization system, I would like you to go back and see what level of redundancy, that you really have a truly separate system that would not be impacted by this.”

Sen. Cantwell later added: “I want to get an answer within a week about the NOTAM system having a separate backup, a totally separate backup that could be used.”  

Here is the full exchange:

Sen. Cantwell: Back to the question, though, on redundancy, I don’t think we have true redundancy here. So I want to see a plan from the FAA that examines the fact that the backup systems are still subject to the same kind of, if you want to call it human error, of deletion of files.

You’re building a system to try to firewall that from not happening again. But it could be a different problem, and we still have a backup system that would be affected. So until we get the true modernization system, I would like you to go back and see what level of redundancy, that you really have a truly separate system that would not be impacted by this.

Acting Administrator Nolen: We appreciate the concern and that is indeed one of the first paths I directed as well, which is this overarching look by our IT team working with MITRE is to do exactly what you’re asking.

Sen. Cantwell: And so what did you come up with? Since you went down this road sooner than I did, what did you come up with?

Acting Administrator Nolen: That is still ongoing. They’ve still got a bit to do, because, you know, as I said, we’ve got thousands of systems, and once that work is done, we’ll certainly be happy to provide an update to the committee.

Sen. Cantwell: You mean, we have contractors with too much stuff and they can’t get things done? Is that what you’re saying?

Acting Administrator Nolen: No, ma’am.

Sen. Cantwell: Okay. So why can’t they give us an analysis of the system and keeping a duplicate system?

Acting Administrator Nolen: That’s the body of work that’s ongoing is not just the NOTAM system. But I think what you’re asking for is looking across all of our critical systems that underpin our national airspace and the levels of redundancy there. That’s the work that we have our IT and MITRE.

Sen. Cantwell: No, I’m asking just now about the NOTAM system. I want to get an answer within a week about the NOTAM system having a separate backup, a totally separate backup that could be used. You’re saying what happened here is somebody infected the file, and basically ended up deleting something that then caused the outage to the system. So the question is, you’re now trying to put human redundancy there so that this won’t happen again. But if the same system is a network, including the backup servers and other places, and whatever action somebody mistakenly takes on files, still affects the whole system. What would be important to understand is, can the FAA set up a true redundant server system that would allow for that file corruption that happened not to happen across the entire system? And that’s what we need to know the answer to.

Read more at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

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