FAA system glitch brings fresh disruption to U.S. air travel


A failure of a key federal safety system caused widespread disruption to domestic air travel for the second time in two weeks on Wednesday, prompting a fresh round of scrutiny from lawmakers amid an ongoing breakdown in technology.

The FAA said initial inspections would be interrupted and traced back to the damaged database file, but the agency is continuing to work to pinpoint the cause of the problem.

The White House and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said they did not suspect a cyberattack or other outside activity. Buttigieg said the FAA made the rare decision to close flight departures for about 90 minutes — This decision wreaked havoc on the system for most of the day – out of an abundance of caution.

“It’s another challenging day for the U.S. airline industry,” Buttigieg told those attending a transportation research conference in Washington on Wednesday. While the issue has been resolved, the state continues to see the impact “play through the system,” he said.

The failure of the FAA’s Notification of Air Tasks system (NOTAM) system came days after a glitch at Southwest Airlines crippled flight operations before Christmas, sparking more questions about whether airlines and the agency that oversees them Are doing enough to invest and upgrade their problem technology infrastructure. Lawmakers have pledged to investigate the latest disruption as they begin work on a major package of legislation related to FAA funding this year.

What is NOTAM, the FAA system that failed and caused massive delays?

The nationwide grounding of flights is the first of its kind since the September 9 terrorist attacks. Former agency official Michael McCormick said Nov. 11, 2001.

“It was unheard of, and then the action the FAA had to take to ground all flights made it even more important,” said McCormick, now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The NOTAM system issues warnings about potential safety hazards the aircraft may face, such as closed runways. Crew must check the notification before departure.

According to the FAA announcement, NOTAM service began to be disrupted at 3:28 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Buttigieg said the backup system took effect, and then the main system was restored before the problem recurred.

Shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday, the FAA issued an announcement saying it was opening a hotline to deal with the issue and inviting airlines to join.

By midnight Tuesday, “it was clear that there were still questions about the accuracy of the information transmitted through the NOTAM system,” Buttigieg said.

Around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, the FAA did a “full reboot” of the system, Buttigieg said. Buttigieg said the repair attempt “has not been validated enough to make people feel comfortable” that the problem has been fully resolved.

“At that point, the FAA started working on ground stops until the FAA could fully verify that the NOTAMs were not only filled correctly, but that they actually reached the aircraft,” Buttigieg said.

The rare nationwide ground stop was issued at 7:21 a.m., halting most commercial air travel in the country for about 90 minutes, even as airports and airlines struggled for hours with backlogged flights.

White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that President Biden, after being briefed on the fault in the FAA system, directed the Department of Transportation to investigate its cause. Congress has also pledged to examine such issues as it begins holding hearings on funding the FAA.

A Survival Guide to Airport Chaos

Wednesday’s problems came amid efforts to modernize the system and fix other problems that have arisen over the years. The FAA has been working for years to improve pilot alert systems, saying it has consolidated information in one place and facilitated the process of computer ingestion of data.

“In short, without NOTAM, there are no flights,” the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said in a statement. “Everyone involved in this issue understands that systems and technology must be updated.”

FAA safety systems require constant upgrades and updates, Buttigieg said.

“The FAA is currently conducting a number of processes to ensure these systems are kept up to date,” he said. “It’s a big topic, certainly before and after I took on this role.”

Mori. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) previously announced plans to hold hearings on Southwest Airlines’ failures that forced the airline to suspend the decision between Dec. 12 and Dec. More than 16,000 flights were canceled during the period. 21 and Dec. 31. The committee will also examine what led to the FAA’s failure, Cantwell said Wednesday.

Southwest Airlines to face congressional scrutiny as it struggles to compensate customers

“We will investigate what caused this outage and how redundancy played a role in preventing future outages,” she said.

Rep. Rick Larson (D-Wash.), the leader of his House Transportation Committee, said he spoke with Buttigieg on Wednesday and will “continue to monitor this disruption to our air travel system until the issue is resolved.” solve.”

Two key Republican lawmakers have vowed to seek accountability and change at the FAA.

Mori.Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the new top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FAA, said the agency’sFailure to keep vital safety systems up and running is completely unacceptable and is just the latest example of how dysfunctional the Department of Transportation is. “

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also vowed to hold those responsible accountable.

Aviation consultant Robert Mann said a key question facing Congress this year as it crafted FAA legislation was what the administration could do to modernize its systems and respond to growing air traffic in the U.S., a process that typically happens every few weeks. Once a year. He said the FAA relied too much on aging technology — a problem that was also blamed for Southwest’s debacle.

“They just can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing,” Mann said. “Many of these systems are decades old, both in hardware and software.”

The country’s air traffic control provider, NAV CANADA, said it also experienced an outage affecting the newly issued NOTAM for about three hours, starting at 10:20 a.m. ET. Spokeswoman Vanessa Adams said the cause is under investigation, but they don’t think it’s related to the FAA’s problem.

“Mitigation measures are in place to support continued operations,” Adams said, noting that Canada has not issued an order banning flights.

Even as U.S. flights resumed on Wednesday, the delays reverberated throughout the system. More than 1,300 flights in and out of the U.S. have been canceled and nearly 10,000 have been delayed, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

American Airlines said it canceled nearly 400 flights and delayed 850 due to issues with the FAA.

The outage meant the airline was unable to issue flight plans or refueling paperwork, according to a memo distributed Wednesday by American Airlines’ director of flight operations. A memo sent later in the day noted that it was also facing challenges booking accommodation for crew members.

The failure of the FAA’s notification system also comes at a time when the agency has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for nearly a year.

Biden nominated Denver International Airport CEO Philip Washington to run the agency after the agency’s previous administrator retired last spring, halfway through his five-year term. The Senate Commerce Committee did not hold a hearing or vote on Washington’s nomination last year.

His sufficient aviation experience has also been questioned amid reports that he may be linked to an investigation in Los Angeles related to the city’s transit agency, which he previously headed, and his career has been largely spent in transit .

Wednesday’s issue could also heighten tensions between airlines and the Department of Transportation, which disputed the reasons for delays and cancellations in a debate last summer over how much responsibility air traffic controllers should take. McCormick said the outage would prompt airlines to further question the reliability of the FAA’s infrastructure.

Some industry leaders pointed to system failures as another example of the need to modernize the nation’s airspace regulator.

“Today’s catastrophic system failure at the FAA clearly demonstrates that America’s transportation network is in dire need of a major upgrade,” said Jeff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Americans deserve a seamless and secure end-to-end travel experience.”

These issues get many travelers off to a rough start to their day.

Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels in Canada, was supposed to be on an Air Canada flight from Washington to Toronto at 9:30 a.m. for an afternoon of back-to-back meetings. Instead, he worked on his laptop at Reagan National Airport and checked the airline app to see if the Air Canada flight would leave Toronto before the U.S. flight left New York state. That would indicate which one is likely to arrive and leave Washington — he’s on board — first.

As his Air Canada flight got more and more delayed, he booked another ticket on American Airlines as a backup. Meanwhile, at 9:30 a.m., he had been staring out the windows of the terminal building as the jets on the runway began to taxi. It was a hopeful sign, but he said he would not hold out hope until one of his two flights took off. His afternoon meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday.

“I need to get there today, but I fully expect things to continue to be delayed,” said Cleary, a Bethesda resident who flies to Canada almost weekly. “It’s a mess. … This is my first trip of the year. Not a good start.”

Doug and Lynn Fuchs, both professors at Vanderbilt University, sat down on an unused luggage carousel at the National Library while Lynn worked on her laptop. They had just rebooked their 11:35am Southwest flight, which had been delayed about 15 minutes, to Nashville at 6am Thursday. They said they believed there was a good chance their scheduled flight would be canceled due to delays across the country.

“We decided to cut our losses,” Doug Fuchs said as they prepared to return home to Washington, D.C. “We don’t want to spend the whole day at the airport.”

Those whose trips have been disrupted may find themselves out of luck if they seek compensation other than ticket refunds.

Operators said cancellations and delays related to Wednesday’s outage could extend into Thursday, but barring any other issues, they expect normal operations on Friday.

Southwest Airlines’ flight disruptions were largely caused by a software glitch with the carrier, while Wednesday’s cancellations and delays were not the fault of any airline. So, if a customer chooses not to take the rebooked flight, the carrier simply sends the customer to the final destination or offers a refund.

As the ground stop at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall ended, the pilot turned to air traffic controllers for guidance. According to LiveATC.net, a pilot asked at 9:02 a.m. if the situation had been resolved. “No, everything is not good, but we are letting some people go,” the controller replied.

A few minutes later, another pilot radioed, “What a beautiful morning.”

Natalie B. Compton, Aaron C. Davis, Annabelle Timsit and Timothy Bella contributed to this report.

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