Aviation expert weighs in after air travel across US thrown into chaos after computer outage

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Thousands of flights across the U.S. were canceled or delayed Wednesday after a government system that offers safety and other information to pilots broke down, stranding some planes on the ground for hours.

The breakdown showed how much American air travel depends on an antiquated computer system that generates alerts called NOTAMs — or Notice to Air Missions — to pilots and others.

Before a flight takes off, pilots and airline dispatchers must review the notices, which include details about weather, runway closures or construction and other information that could affect the flight. The system was once telephone-based, with pilots calling dedicated flight service stations for the information, but it has moved online.

The NOTAM system broke down late Tuesday and was not fixed until midmorning Wednesday, leading to more than 1,200 flight cancellations and more than 8,500 delays by early afternoon on the East Coast, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

EXPLAINER: How NOTAM caused widespread flight disruptions

Even after the Federal Aviation Administration lifted the order grounding planes, the chaos was expected to linger. More than 21,000 flights were scheduled to take off Wednesday in the U.S., mostly domestic trips, and about 1,840 international flights expected to fly to the U.S., according to aviation data firm Cirium.

Passengers who News4JAX spoke with at Jacksonville International Airport on Wednesday said they didn’t know about the ground stop until they were steps away from boarding their plane.

“They just said everything’s grounded. Houston was shut down. They weren’t taking any inbound flights or nobody was able to, nobody was able to depart or land, and they didn’t communicate that until the last moment,” said St. Augustine resident Craig Graham, who was traveling to California.

Graham was at the gate with bags in hand when he learned about the nationwide ground stop order that led to thousands of flight cancellations and delays.

″They acted like everything was good, then you get up there, and they’re, like, ‘You’re going to be stuck,’” said Lydia Kite, who was flying to Honolulu.

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The White House said there was no evidence that a cyberattack triggered the outage, which upended travel plans for millions of passengers. President Joe Biden said he directed the Department of Transportation to investigate.

“They don’t know what the cause of it is. They expect in a couple of hours they’ll have a good sense of what caused it and will respond at that time,” Biden said.

According to FAA advisories, the NOTAM system failed at 8:28 p.m. Tuesday, preventing new or amended notices from being distributed to pilots. The FAA resorted to a telephone hotline to keep departures flying overnight, but as daytime traffic picked up, the phone system became overwhelmed.

The FAA ordered all departing flights grounded early Wednesday morning, affecting all passenger and cargo flights. Some medical flights could get clearance, and the outage did not affect any military operations.

“If it’s a simple matter of a particular computer component at a major data center failing, then we can go back to business as usual,” said aviation expert and pilot Ed Booth. “But if this is revealed, the system is vulnerable to outside interference, you know, if this was the result of a denial-of-service attack, I think it’s a serious problem and how you go about hardening the system in a timely fashion is going to be a real challenge.”

Booth showed News4JAX what his NOTAM screen looked like on Wednesday with a flight plan leaving out of Jacksonville. At that particular time, NOTAM warned about runway clousres, maintenance issues and airspace restrictions. He said the FAA system is vitally important for airplane pilots.

“They’re required as part of the FAA regulations to review this information, and if you don’t, you do so at your own peril,” Booth said. “You know, the airlines have dispatched departments that do this and briefed the pilots.”

Some state senators are calling for congressional reforms to the FAA following Wednesday’s widespread outages and cancellations.

It was the latest headache for travelers in the U.S. who faced weather-related flight cancellations over the holidays and a broad breakdown at Southwest Airlines.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.