Attention turns to FAA after damaged database file causes outage in safety-alert system

US air travel returns mostly to normal following technology breakdown

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. air travel returned mostly to normal Thursday, a day after a computer system that sends safety information to pilots broke down and grounded traffic from coast to coast.

By early afternoon Thursday on the East Coast, about 100 flights had been canceled and 1,700 delayed — much lower figures than on Wednesday, when more than 1,300 flights were scrubbed and 11,000 delayed.

But attention turned to the federal agency whose technology failure inconvenienced millions of travelers.

The Federal Aviation Administration said a damaged database file appeared to have caused the outage in the safety-alert system. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised a thorough examination to avoid another major failure.

Canada also experienced a similar failure with its flight safety system, although officials say there does not appear to be a connection with the U.S. failure. Canada’s Notice to Air Mission system, which provides last-minute alerts and warnings to pilots, experienced an outage Wednesday, around the same time U.S. flights were grounded for the first time since Sept. 11, 2001.

NAV Canada tweeted that its “entry system is currently experiencing an outage affecting newly issued NOTAMS, and we are working to restore function. We are not currently experiencing any delays related to this outage.”

U.S. flight passengers weren’t as lucky.

The Notice to Air Mission, or NOTAM, system that crashed has been criticized for years, and at least one aviation industry has called for it to be replaced altogether. The FAA said the problem was likely a damaged database file, saying there was no evidence yet of any cyberattack.

“I have been flying for 45 years now, and I do not recall this ever happening,” said aviation expert and pilot Ed Booth.

Booth showed News4JAX Wednesday’s warning on his NOTAM system, which says NOTAM data may not be current due to a U.S. NOTAM service interruption. A recheck of data prior to departure may be warranted.

“They may not be up to date, so I don’t say the system is fixed,” Booth said.

Critics say the FAA has been underfunded and needs to modernize its technology. Buttigieg says action will be taken.

“The FAA will continue its work to further pinpoint the sources of this issue and steps to prevent it from occurring again,” he tweeted.

At Jacksonville International Airport on Thursday, it was business as usual, according to airport officials.

“We’d consider it a return to normal, but we encourage all of our travelers to check with your airlines before you come because there are still some flights that are delayed,” said Jacksonville Aviation Authority Vice President Michael Stewart.

But at other airports across the country and the globe, the effects of Wednesday’s no-fly order were still being felt.

“Other airports are still having some problems because there’s a triple effect that happens when you have a major disruption,” Stewart said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantell said that a congressional panel will be looking into what caused the outage and how redundance plays a role in preventing future outages.

About the Authors:

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