The FAA has a classic problem: Ancient tech that’s failing

A flight information board on January 11, when the FAA halted all departures for nearly two hours (Photo: AP)
A flight information board on January 11, when the FAA halted all departures for nearly two hours (Photo: AP)


January outage of U.S. pilot-alert system halted all departures and shook aviation industry; FAA tries to modernize

The Federal Aviation Administration halted flights across America in early January, paralyzing air traffic for nearly two hours. It was the first nationwide ground stop since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and shook an industry struggling to cope with a postpandemic surge in travel.

The FAA blamed a contractor for unintentionally deleting computer files in an alert system, which tells pilots about restrictions and hazards along their routes.

A closer look at the system suggests that its problems run much deeper. Despite repeated warnings about its vulnerability, the system hasn’t been overhauled in years. Phasing out aging equipment has been put off since at least 2016. It is so fragile that flooding from heavy rain at an Oklahoma City facility in 2021 knocked out the system.

Former FAA officials and industry representatives said it is antiquated and urgently needs to be fixed. The Transportation Department, the FAA’s parent agency, said in budget documents for the 2023 fiscal year that the system relies on “failing vintage hardware."

One important component is decades old. Fixing it over the years often required the know-how of a single information-technology specialist who understands its Byzantine architecture, former FAA officials said.

The FAA’s Notice to Air Missions, or Notam, system spits out alerts to all pilots about issues such as construction cranes near airports, icy runways and airspace restrictions, including the ones imposed when U.S. military jets shot down a Chinese spy balloon and other flying objects. Federal regulations require pilots to read them before taking off.

“It was never looked at as a critical system, even though, as you see, it is a critical system," said Ernie Bilotto, who managed an FAA office overseeing it until his retirement in 2015.

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Jan. 11 Notam shutdown.

That was one of a string of recent incidents that have exposed the fragility of the U.S. aviation system as demand for air travel surges back. An operations fiasco at Southwest Airlines Co. stranded thousands of travelers over the Christmas holidays. More recently, two near collisions were reported at airports in New York and Texas.

The Notam system operates separately from the air-traffic-control one, which is responsible for directing planes in and out of airports. For years, the system for collecting and distributing pilot notices has been a relatively low priority within the FAA, with more attention and funding for upgrades going to systems deemed more important to maintaining safe air traffic, according to aviation industry and former FAA officials. Neither the DOT nor the FAA have said what it could cost to overhaul the system quickly.

After the Notam shutdown on Jan. 11, thousands of flights were canceled or delayed. More problems followed on Jan. 25, when part of the system went offline and users experienced some delays, according to internal FAA messages. The FAA said it hadn’t received any reports of flight disruptions then.

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a Jan. 27 letter to U.S. House lawmakers that since the Jan. 11 outage, “the FAA has taken steps to make the Notam system more resilient and will continue to do so as the FAA continues its review." Mr. Nolen said the system’s modernization isn’t scheduled to be complete until 2030.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has directed the FAA to accelerate work to modernize the Notam system, a spokeswoman said, while urging Congress to provide “stable and predictable resources" for the aviation system.

Former FAA employees said that in the 1990s, the office managing Notams was located on an FAA facility’s loading dock. Later, it moved into office space at the agency’s current air-traffic-control command center in Warrenton, Va., but wasn’t first in line for equipment upgrades, they said.

“We were always the stepchild of the command center," said Mark Spina, who worked in the Notam office from 2010 until 2014.

In recent years, FAA and industry officials have discussed whether the agency should change the system’s classification from mission-support to safety-critical, according to industry and former government officials. Mr. Bilotto, the former FAA manager, said he called for such a reclassification after an outage under his watch.

Former FAA officials said designating the system as safety-critical might have brought upgrades sooner, including upgrading backup systems that could have prevented the January outage. Other FAA systems that help airplanes take off and land safely, they noted, have backup systems that immediately take over if a primary system fails.

An FAA spokesman said a system’s designation doesn’t guarantee that funding will be available.

While the Notam system has backup databases and servers at an FAA facility in Atlantic City, N.J., a backup system wouldn’t kick in immediately if the primary one failed, according to current and former government and industry officials.

Mr. Bilotto and an aviation industry official recalled that the important, decades-old part of the system was due to be phased out in 2016. The FAA now says it will jettison that equipment in 2025.

If the current system goes offline, pilots can still access the most recent alerts. Carriers such as JetBlue Airways Corp. have said they have their own workarounds, and pilots could potentially call individual airport towers to learn of flight restrictions. But on Jan. 11, the FAA acting administrator imposed the nationwide ground stop because of questions about the accuracy of the information in the system.

In May 2021, the Notam system had what government and aviation industry officials said was the most recent bad outage before the January incident. Heavy rain caused outages of some of the primary Notam servers at an FAA building in Oklahoma City, said James Linney, a technical operations official at the agency, at an industry meeting later that year. The system was restored before the outage caused major flight disruptions.

That disaster, as he described the situation, prompted the FAA to add flood protection and take other steps to avoid a similar episode. “Our risk levels have gone dramatically down," Mr. Linney said in the meeting.

In response to the flooding incident, the FAA began formulating a contingency plan called Lifeboat, aviation industry and government officials said.

The FAA spokesman said the agency has set up a more streamlined standby system at its Atlantic City, N.J., facility, and that it is nearing the final stages of implementing the Lifeboat plan, which he described as a step to add redundancy.

Another vulnerability was revealed on Jan. 11 after employees working for Spatial Front Inc., an FAA contractor, deleted files, according to the FAA. The company has said it is cooperating with the FAA’s probe into the outage. Melanie Harrison, the company’s director of business development, said Spatial Front is implementing new procedures mandated by the FAA.

Air-safety investigators have cited Notam-related deficiencies as factors in fatal crashes or close calls, including a 2017 near-collision at San Francisco International Airport. In that incident, a plane nearly landed on a taxiway where there were four other aircraft, risking hundreds of lives. The National Transportation Safety Board later called for the “need for more effective presentation of flight operations information to optimize pilot review and retention of relevant information."

Pilots and air-safety officials have long complained that alerts contain extraneous information in formats that aren’t easy to digest. They come with abbreviations and capital letters, and the most important alert about a hazard may be buried under multiple pages. Proponents of modernization say newer technology would allow improved alert content and increased safety.

“The Notam system is safety critical," NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said in an interview. “It provides information that flight crews need to be aware of."

Over the past decade, annual congressional funding for FAA facilities and equipment has hovered around $3 billion. The FAA hasn’t said how much more money it might request for the Notam system beyond the $29 million sought in fiscal 2023.

David Grizzle, a former FAA chief operating officer and current chairman of regional carrier Republic Airways, said the agency’s funding challenges have long forced it to focus its technology spending on immediate safety needs such as updating air-traffic control systems. The FAA’s triage approach to spending has delayed upgrades to important systems, he said.

Since the January outage, the FAA has taken steps to prevent a recurrence. It has cut off access to the system for contract personnel involved in the outage while it investigates, and has moved to isolate the system’s databases so that if the primary one is damaged, it won’t immediately damage a backup one, according to Mr. Nolan’s letter to House Transportation Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R., Mo.) and ranking member Rick Larsen (D., Wash.).

According to Mr. Nolen, the acting administrator, the FAA will now require that at least two employees be present during maintenance, including a federal manager.

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