Years of Unheeded Warnings Led to FAA System Breakdown

Despite regulators warning about an outdated pilot alert system for years, failure to replace it quickly enough led to Wednesday’s mass cancellations, The New York Times reported.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Notice to Air Missions or “NOTAM” system has been used in use since 1947 and was initially telephone-based before switching over to the internet, according to a profile by CBS News.

An explainer from the FAA says the service helps pilots receive details on abnormal situations in airspace, including time and location, as well as descriptions of a hazard, obstruction, or service.

In a recent budget request by the Department of Treasury, officials described the FAA system as “failing vintage hardware,” seeking $29.4 million to accelerate the development of a replacement system.

But the halting of all domestic flights for more than two hours on Wednesday morning proved that it was too little too late, with roughly 1,300 flights canceled in the hours following 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

“It’s been in need of an upgrade for quite some time,” said retired FAA official Joel Wade, a former operator of the system. “They should have done it a long time ago.”

Ex-FAA chief counsel Arjun Garg puts a lot of that blame on a lack of congressional funding for the agency. The 2021 infrastructure bill, for example, directed most FAA funding toward air-traffic control facilities and airport infrastructure projects.

Air-traffic control technology has “struggled in some respects, and one cause that has been pointed to has been the lack of stable, consistent funding,” Garg emphasized.

Meanwhile, some airliners, including Delta and JetBlue, informed the FAA that they had already developed their own backup processes after previous breakdowns in the system.

“Safety is always our first priority, and ensuring flight safety was the reason for this morning’s ground stop while the affected systems were restored and checked,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stated. “As normal flight operations have resumed, FAA continues to assess the causes of the outage.”

Multiple current and former government officials confirmed to The Times that the NOTAM system’s next update is not expected to be completed for some years, with the last significant adjustment occurring over a decade ago.

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