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Washington D.C.
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Contract Personnel Responsible for Outage That Grounded Flights, FAA Says

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is seeking more detailed answers about the outage.

A preliminary Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) review of last week’s outage of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system determined that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database. The agency has so far found no evidence of a cyber attack or malicious intent. The FAA continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the outage which led to a pause in all domestic departures on January 11 and caused knock-on effects across the world. Thousands of flights in the U.S. alone were affected.

The NOTAM system is crucial to aviation safety and issues notices containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations but not known far enough in advance to be publicized by other means. Such notices could include bird hazard warnings, runway closures, low altitude construction alerts as well as equipment failures.

The FAA made the necessary repairs to the system quickly and has since taken steps to make the NOTAM system more resilient. The agency is also acting to adopt any other lessons learned in its efforts to ensure the continuing robustness of the U.S. air traffic control system.

Prior to the FAA’s announcement of its preliminary findings, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO), the Committee’s Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-WA), and 120 other Members of Congress wrote to the Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg seeking answers about the NOTAM outage.

The Members wrote, “Over the past year, there have been a series of flight delays and mass cancellations that have caused considerable harm to passengers. While not all of these events have been within the agency’s control, at least some have been due to the FAA’s apparent issues with managing the agency’s air traffic control legacy systems. The failure to improve legacy systems is unacceptable, and the American people expect and deserve better.”

Graves pointed out that the 2018 FAA reauthorization law required the FAA to modernize the NOTAM system. The Members noted in their letter that the FAA’s most recent budget request included nearly $30 million to “eliminate the failing vintage hardware that currently supports [NOTAMs],” adding that “this shows the FAA was well aware of the issues facing the NOTAM system.” 

The Members asked the Secretary to provide a briefing to Members and detailed responses to a number of questions about the causes of the system failure, the FAA’s response to the problem, the level of resiliency and redundancy built into the NOTAM system, the age of the system’s software and hardware, any recent or planned FAA updates to the system, impacts of the flight delays and cancellations on passengers, and more.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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