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FAA system collapse causes new disruptions to US air travel

FAA system collapse causes new disruptions to US air travel

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The failure of a key federal safety system on Wednesday caused widespread disruption to domestic air travel for the second time in two weeks, prompting a new round of scrutiny from lawmakers amid continued technology breakdowns.

The Federal Aviation Administration said a preliminary review traced the outage to a corrupted database file, but the agency continues to work to determine the cause of the problem.

The White House and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said they do not suspect a cyberattack or other outside activity. Buttigieg said the FAA made the rare decision to suspend departing flights for about 90 minutes – a decision that wreaked havoc on the system for most of the day – out of caution.

“It’s been another difficult day for American aviation,” Buttigieg told those gathered at a transportation research conference Wednesday in Washington. Although the problems were addressed, the nation continued to see effects “ripple through the system,” he said.

The failure of the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAMs, system came days after the Southwest Airlines crash before Christmas that paralyzed flight operations, raising more questions about whether airlines and the agency that oversees them are doing enough to invest and upgrade its technological infrastructure. Lawmakers have vowed to examine the latest disruption as they begin work this year on a major package of legislation related to FAA funding.

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

The nationwide grounding is the first of its kind since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Michael McCormick, a former agency official.

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

The NOTAM system disseminates warnings of potential safety hazards, such as runway closures, that an aircraft may encounter. Crews are required to familiarize themselves with the notices prior to take-off.

According to an FAA bulletin, the NOTAM service outage began at 3:28 p.m. ET on Tuesday. A backup system went into effect, then the main system resumed before problems reappeared, Buttigieg said.

Just before 8pm on Tuesday the FAA issued a newsletter saying it is activating a hotline to address the issue, inviting airlines to join.

In the middle of the night on Tuesday, “it became clear that there were still problems with the accuracy of the information moving through the NOTAM system,” Buttigieg said.

Around 5 a.m. Wednesday, the FAA performed a “full reboot” of the system, Buttigieg said. That attempted fix “wasn’t validated enough to feel comfortable” that the problems were fully resolved, Buttigieg said.

“At that point, a move was made to institute a ground hold until the FAA could fully confirm not only that the NOTAMs were being completed correctly, but that they were actually reaching the aircraft,” Buttigieg said.

That rare nationwide ground shutdown 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 the backlog.

President Biden, who was informed of the failures of the FAA system, ordered the Department of Transportation to investigate the causes, White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. Congress has also promised to examine similar issues when it begins hearings on FAA funding.

Your guide to surviving airport chaos

Wednesday’s problems came amid efforts to modernize the system and address other issues that have arisen over the years. The FAA has been in a long-running effort to improve the pilot warning system, saying it has consolidated information in one place and streamlined the process for computers to ingest data.

“In short, no NOTAM, no flight,” the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said in a statement. “Everyone involved in this problem understands that systems and technology need to be updated.”

Buttigieg said the FAA’s safety systems constantly need to be upgraded and refreshed.

“There are a number of processes currently underway at the FAA to ensure that these systems remain up to date,” he said. “It’s been a big topic, certainly before and since I’ve arrived in this role.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, previously announced plans to hold hearings in failures at Southwest Airlines this forced the carrier to cancel more than 16,000 flights between December 21 and December 31. Cantwell said Wednesday that the commission will also review what caused the failure at the FAA.

Southwest will face congressional scrutiny as it works to compensate customers

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

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), his party’s leader on the House Transportation Committee, said he spoke with Buttigieg on Wednesday and would “continue to monitor this disruption to our air transportation system until it is allowed’.

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

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the incoming top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FAA, said the agencythe failure to keep an important safety system operational is completely unacceptable and is just the latest example of dysfunction within the Department of Transport.

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

Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, said a key question for Congress as it works on FAA legislation this year — a process that typically takes place every few years — is what the government can do to modernize its systems and address with the nation’s growing air traffic volume. He said the FAA was too dependent on aging technology, a problem also blamed for Southwest’s failure.

“They just can’t keep doing what they’ve always done,” Mann said. “A lot of these systems are decades old, hardware and software.”

NAV CANADA, that country’s air traffic control provider, said it also had an outage affecting newly issued NOTAMs for about three hours, starting at 10:20 a.m. ET. Spokeswoman Vanessa Adams said the cause is under investigation, but they do not believe it is related to FAA issues.

“Mitigation measures have been put in place to support ongoing operations,” Adams said, noting that Canada has not issued a no-fly order.

Even as American flights resumed Wednesday, delays continued to reverberate throughout the system. According to flight-tracking website FlightAware, more than 1,300 flights to, in or out of the United States were canceled, while nearly 10,000 were delayed.

American Airlines said the carrier has canceled nearly 400 flights and delayed 850 flights as a result of the FAA issue.

According to a memo released by American Airlines’ director of flight operations on Wednesday, the outage means the airline is unable to issue flight plans or upload documents. A memo sent later in the day noted that it was also facing challenges reserving accommodation for crew members.

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

Biden nominated Philip Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, to manage the agency after its former 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.

He has faced scrutiny over reports of a possible connection to an investigation in Los Angeles related to that city’s transit agency, which he formerly led, and questions about whether he had sufficient aviation experience after a career spent mostly in transit.

Wednesday’s problems could also exacerbate tensions between the airlines and the Department of Transportation, which disputed the causes of delays and cancellations last summer amid a debate over how much responsibility air traffic controllers should bear. McCormick said the outage would cause airlines to further question the reliability of the FAA’s infrastructure.

Some industry leaders pointed to the system’s failure as another example of the need to modernize the agency that regulates and controls the nation’s airspace.

“Today’s catastrophic failure of the FAA system is a clear sign that America’s transportation network is in desperate need of significant improvements,” said Jeff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Travel Association. “Americans deserve seamless and secure end-to-end travel.”

The problems made it difficult to start the day for many passengers.

Don Cleary, president of Marriott Hotels of Canada, was due at 9:30 am Air Canada flight from Washington DC to Toronto for afternoon scheduled meetings. Instead, he was working on his laptop at Reagan National Airport, checking airline apps to see if an Air Canada flight would leave Toronto before an American flight left upstate New York. That would signal who was likely to arrive and leave Washington—with him on board—first.

As the delays on his Air Canada flight mounted, he had booked another ticket on American as a backup. Meanwhile, at 9:30 a.m., he kept an eye out the terminal window, watching the runway as the planes began taxiing. It was a promising sign, but he said he wouldn’t get his hopes up until one of his two flights took off. His afternoon appointments had already been rescheduled for Thursday.

“I’m supposed 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 on a passive baggage conveyor belt at National for Lynn to work on her laptop. They had just booked their 11:35 a.m. Southwest flight, already delayed by about 15 minutes, to Nashville for 6 a.m. Thursday. They said they assumed there was a good chance their original flight would be canceled as delays mounted across the country.

“We decided to just cut our losses,” Doug Fuchs said as they prepared to return home to DC. “We didn’t want to spend all day at the airport.”

Those whose journeys have been disrupted may be out of luck if they seek compensation beyond a ticket refund.

Carriers said cancellations and delays related to Wednesday’s outage could extend into Thursday, but barring further problems, they expect normal operations on Friday.

Unlike Southwest’s flight disruptions, which were largely caused by a glitch in the carrier’s software, Wednesday’s canceled and delayed flights were not the fault of either airline. As a result, carriers are only required to take customers to their final destination or offer a refund if they choose not to take the rebooked flight.

As the ground stop at Baltimore-Washington Marshall International Airport neared the end, pilots began asking air traffic controllers for directions. A pilot asked at 9:02 a.m. if the situation was resolved, according to a feed from “No, not all is well, but we are letting some people in,” replied the controller.

A few minutes later, another pilot called over the radio, “What a morning.”

Natalie B. Compton, Aaron S. Davis, Annabelle Timsitt, and Timothy Bella contributed to this report.

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