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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House passes bill to study FAA alert system whose outage grounded flights

Cancellations and delays mount on a flight status tracker at Newark Liberty International

Airport in New Jersey, on Jan.11, 2023.


The House passed legislation earlier this week that would create a task force to study a Federal Aviation Administration alert system that went down this month, causing departing flights to be grounded nationwide.

The bill drew overwhelming bipartisan support, passing by a vote of 424-4. It faces an unclear future in the Senate, where it failed to receive a vote after previously passing the House in 2019 and again in 2021. But the system outage this month is bringing more attention to what experts say is outdated technology at the FAA.

Departures across the country were halted for about 90 minutes on Jan. 11 after the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions system went down, and thousands of flights were ultimately delayed that day. The so-called NOTAM system is used to provide information to pilots about hazards like runway closures and airspace restrictions.

Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., the bill’s sponsor, said it was unacceptable that the current system had been allowed to stay in place for so long, citing complaints from pilots about how the notices sent through it are hard to interpret. He expressed hope that after the recent outage, the bill would finally make it through the Senate.

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

The legislation would direct the FAA to create a task force to consider improvements to the system. Its members would be appointed by the agency’s administrator and would include representatives of airlines, airports and labor unions as well as experts in areas like aviation safety and cybersecurity.

The FAA declined to comment on the bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

The FAA has been in the process of modernizing the NOTAM system, which the agency’s most recent budget request described as relying on “failing vintage hardware.” Congress provided funding for the modernization efforts in the spending package that lawmakers approved last month to fund the government through September.

Matthew Lehner, a spokesperson for the FAA, said the modernization project would hit a milestone in 2025 when the legacy portion of the system is phased out. Additional improvements are scheduled through 2030, and the agency is looking for ways to speed up the timeline for that work, Lehner said.

The FAA said last week that a preliminary investigation into the outage revealed that contract personnel had “unintentionally deleted files” while working on the system. The agency added that it had taken steps to make the system “more resilient” and that no evidence of a cyberattack or malicious intent had been found.

The outage came on the heels of another air travel mess. Around Christmas, Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel thousands of flights after a winter storm threw its operations into chaos for days.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bill, said that weeks before the system outage, he and a colleague, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., had sent a letter to the FAA asking for an update on the efforts to modernize the NOTAM system.

DeSaulnier said he had been pushing for the system to be improved since a harrowing incident at San Francisco International Airport in 2017 in which an Air Canada plane almost landed on a taxiway instead of a nearby runway. Four planes loaded with passengers had been waiting on the taxiway to be cleared for takeoff, and the Air Canada plane narrowly avoided a collision.

The flight crew’s “ineffective review of NOTAM information” concerning a runway closure at the airport was among the factors cited in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the incident.

“We came within 100 feet of having the worst aviation disaster in the history of the country,” 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.”

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