FAA Shutdown Due to Operator Error


Air Control Tower | Image by ersin ergin/Shutterstock

Last week, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) system error led to the most dramatic flight shutdowns since 9/11, delaying at least 11,000 flights Wednesday morning.

At first, the FAA reported that the shutdown was due to a damaged database file, but later revealed that it was ultimately operator error that had caused the corrupted file.

The news led 120 U.S. lawmakers to deem the shutdown as “completely unacceptable,” demanding that the FAA take preventative measures for the future.

Early last Wednesday, the FAA’s NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) experienced a total outage, with “Operations across the National Airspace System … affected,” the FAA said.

NOTAM is a system that sends immediate flight data regarding procedures and potential hazards from air traffic personnel to pilots.

The system covers everything from basic protocols to warning pilots about snowstorms and flocks of birds while in the air.

When NOTAM system fails, flying becomes unsafe and unpredictable, hence last Wednesday’s mass groundstop order.

By the next day, the FAA had discovered that the NOTAM failure was due to a mistake during routine system maintenance, ABC News reported.

“The agency determined that a data file was damaged by personnel who failed to follow procedures,” the FAA reported, explaining that a computer engineer had accidentally replaced a crucial file in the system with another.

Operators were alerted to the failure on Tuesday night, but a complete system reboot failed on Wednesday morning.

House Transportation Committee Chair Sam Graves (R-MO) and Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-WA) said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that the committee is demanding additional details on the FAA system failure.

The committee also intends to “conduct vigorous oversight of the Department of Transportation’s plan to prevent these disruptions from occurring again.”

Directly after the system shutdown, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen held a conference call with airlines, where he allowed pilots to decide for themselves whether to fly despite the NOTAM outage.

This move drew heavy flak from the Senate, including Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, who emailed the FAA asking, “Why were airlines put in a position where they could have the option of choosing to operate when the NOTAM system was down?”

In light of the groundstop reportedly lasting longer than Buttigieg claimed that it had, the email also asked, “When Sec. Buttigieg tweeted at approximately 8:50am that the groundstop had been lifted, was the NOTAM system full (sic) operational at that point?”

Buttigieg said, “Our immediate focus is technical — understanding exactly how this happened, why the redundancies and the backups that were built into the system were not able to prevent the level of disruption that we saw.”

He promised that there would be an investigation to avoid another major failure in the future.

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