The FAA has determined that a software glitch—specifically a damaged database file—caused the outage of the agency’s notam system on Wednesday morning, leading to the grounding of all commercial flights in the U.S. for about an hour and a half. The Department of Transportation has launched an investigation and members of Congress have vowed to do the same as they prepare to deliberate over the next FAA Reauthorization bill.
“The FAA is continuing a thorough review to determine the root cause of the Notice to Air Missions (notam) system outage,” said the agency in a statement. “Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyberattack. The FAA is working diligently to further pinpoint the causes of this issue and take all needed steps to prevent this kind of disruption from happening again.”
The outage resulted in thousands of delays and cancellations across the country on January 11, just weeks after a massive winter storm led to several days of travel chaos, most notably at Southwest Airlines, which on its own canceled more than 16,700 flights between December 21 and December 31.
The impact of the most recent incident proved broader, as the system saw nearly 11,000 delays and almost 3,000 cancellations within, into, and out of the U.S. by the end of Wednesday, according to data from flight tracking service FlightAware.
In a Twitter posting, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said he had consulted with the FAA over the cause and the best course of action to resolve the situation. “I have directed an after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps,” he said.
Of course, Buttigieg and the FAA absorbed condemnation from members of Congress, including perennial Biden Administration critic and Republican House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Sam Graves.
“Just as Southwest’s widespread disruption just a few weeks ago was inexcusable, so too is the DOT’s and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” Graves said in a statement released Wednesday. “This incident also underscores the number of empty desks and vacant offices at the FAA. Centuries of combined experience has gone out the door in the past several years and far too few of these positions have been filled. The FAA does not run on autopilot—it needs skilled, dedicated, and permanent leadership in positions across the agency, starting with the administrator’s office. It’s been nearly a year since the FAA has had a permanent administrator, and with the current nominee’s troubling resume, the Biden Administration seems to think this lack of qualified leadership can go on indefinitely.”
For their part, congressional Democrats took a less confrontational posture. “The number one priority is safety,” said Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington. “As the Committee prepares for FAA reauthorization legislation, we will be looking into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages. The public needs a resilient air transportation system.”