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January 20, 2023

Deleted files caused NOTAM outage that grounded US flights

The incident brought the US aviation industry to a complete standstill for the first time in 22 years.

By Ryan Morrison

Someone “unintentionally deleting files” led to an outage to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) IT system that left thousands of flights grounded in the US earlier this month, a preliminary investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revealed.

Thousands of flights were grounded after a tool used to inform pilots of the conditions for flight went offline (Photo: Filip Koska/Shutterstock)
Thousands of flights were grounded after a tool used to inform pilots of the conditions for flight went offline. (Photo by Filip Koska/Shutterstock)

Just before the outage engineers were working to correct a synchronisation issue between the live primary pilot messaging database and a back-up version of the database. The NOTAM tool is used to issue a written notification to pilots before a flight, advising them of circumstances relating to the state of flying.

Messages sent using NOTAM include information on lights being out on a certain runway, a tower not having safety lights or even an air show taking place nearby. It covers any conditions that could affect the safety of that flight and is separate from air traffic control.

The incident caused the first nationwide grounding of all departing aircraft since the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. The FAA confirmed there was no evidence of a cyberattack or malicious intent behind the most recent outage.

The grounding of 11,000 flights has led to calls for an inquiry and a group of 120 US politicians calling it “completely unacceptable” and demanding a more resilient process in place to avoid any future incidents happening. The House Transportation Committee says it plans to “conduct vigorous oversight of the Department of Transportation’s plan to prevent these disruptions from occurring again.”

NOTAM outage: extra funding for the FAA required?

The NOTAM system first went down on 10 January, but the decision to ground flights didn’t come until the next morning. The Senate Commerce Committee has asked the FAA to explain this discrepancy and why airlines were “put in a position where they could have the option of choosing to operate when the NOTAM system was down?”.

There are also demands for transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg to provide an estimated cost to commercial airlines and passengers as a result of delays caused by the outage. Buttigieg has previously said the government has no plans to compensate passengers for the delays.

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Previously the FAA said it was the result of a procedural error related to a corrupted data file and necessary repairs had been made to the system to make it more resilient in the future.

Little specific detail has been published on the cause of the outage beyond the fact it was a file that had been unintentionally deleted during maintenance work on the software and that there was no malicious intent. It is expected more detail will be provided when the FAA publishes its full report.

Airline executives blamed a lack of funding for the FAA on the outage, saying it was due to it not having the resources and staffing needed to operate properly. Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian told Squawk Box during an interview that “hopefully this will be the call to our political leaders in Washington that we need to do better”.

Read more: Vertical Aerospace CIO on a radical post-Covid-19 transformation

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