top of page

Can The FAA Bounce Back After Meltdown?

Earlier this month 11,000 flights were delayed and at least 1,300 were cancelled. So what was the cause? Well, an IT worker “unintentionally deleted files” on the Notice to Air Missions (Notam) database.

The database is crucial for pilots as it alerts them when there are potential hazards on the flight route. By law, they are required to check it before they can take off.

The technical glitch is the first time that all US planes had been grounded since 9/11, with lawmakers vowing to look into the issue.

So far, senior government officials have said that there was no foul play involved in the accident, explaining that a corrupted file affected both the main and backup computer systems used by the FAA.

The meltdown led to full travel chaos, with thousands of people stranded on the ground and no idea how long they could be stuck for.

Sky news correspondent Mark Stone summed up his experience of being stranded at Ronald Regan Airport as “an almighty mess for the aviation industry.”

President Biden also weighed in, directing the US Department of Transport to launch a full investigation into the IT failure.

The failure was eventually fixed after 90 minutes using the oldest trick in the book- turning the system on and off again.

The FAA explained that they are still reviewing the root cause of the problem but have “traced the outage to a damaged database file,” adding that there was “ no evidence of a cyberattack."

On Wednesday, The House passed legislation to create a taskforce to study exactly what happened to the system.

Pete Stauber, a Republican congressman from Minnesota and the bill’s supporter, said that it was unacceptable that the current system had been in place for so long, explaining that there had been a multitude of complaints from pilots, yet no one had acted.

He said, “This is a priority. We cannot have another critical failure like we did a couple weeks ago.”

The legislation would see the FAA create a task force to consider improvements to the system in the hope that they will be able to bounce back from this meltdown.

The members of the force would be chosen by the agency’s administrator and would include a variety of industry experts such as airline representatives, airports, labor unions, cyber experts and cybersecurity.

According to the FAA’s most recent budget request, steps were being taken to modernise the system which was using “failing vintage hardware.”

As a result, aviation experts have suspected that one of the causes of the failure could have been severe underfunding. In 2022, the agency’s budget was $18.5 billion, which was less than what it was in 2004 after adjusting for inflation.

For years it has been known that the software has been outdated. In 2017, an Air Canada plane almost landed on the taxiway as opposed to the nearby runway. Four planes were waiting on the runway in the near miss.

Mark DeSauliner, a Democrat from California, has been pushing for a system renewal since the event. “We came within 100 feet of having the worst aviation disaster in the history of the country,” Mr DeSaulnier said, “so we’ve got to make sure all of these systems are as foolproof as possible on every level and people have a great sense of confidence in them.”

Additionally, the FAA has been without a permeant leader since the end of March, massively restricting the agency’s ability to carry out serious reforms.

Last week, President Biden renominated Phillip A. Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport, to serve as FAA’s chief administrator.

Washington has faced criticism over his limited aviation experience and his involvement in a public corruption investigation in Los Angeles. So it is likely his appointment will be hotly contested, potentially leading to even more disruption.

As the investigation into what happened on January 11th gets going , structural fragilities with the organisation have no doubt played a part and as a result, it could be years before the FAA bounce back from this meltdown.

Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

6 views0 comments


bottom of page