Computer breakdown sows chaos across US air travel system
NEW YORK (AP) — Thousands of flights across the U.S. were canceled or delayed Wednesday after a system that offers safety information to pilots failed, and the government launched an investigation into the breakdown, which grounded some planes for hours.
The Federal Aviation Administration said preliminary indications “traced the outage to a damaged database file.” The agency said it would take steps to avoid another similar disruption.
The breakdown showed how much American air travel depends on the computer system that generates alerts called NOTAMs — or Notice to Air Missions.
Before a plane takes off, pilots and airline dispatchers must review the notices, which include details about bad weather, runway closures or other temporary factors that could affect the flight. The system was once telephone-based but moved online years ago.
The system broke down late Tuesday and was not fixed until mid-morning Wednesday. The FAA took the rare step of preventing any planes from taking off for a time, and the cascading chaos led to more than 1,300 flight cancellations and 9,000 delays by early evening on the East Coast, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told a news conference that the problems “led to a ground stop because of the way safety information was moving through the system.”
After the failures were fixed, he warned that travelers could continue to see some effects “rippling through the system.”
Buttigieg said his agency would now try to learn why the system went down.
Longtime aviation insiders could not recall an outage of such magnitude caused by a technology failure. Some compared it in scope to the nationwide shutdown of airspace after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“Periodically there have been local issues here or there, but this is pretty significant historically,” said Tim Campbell, a former senior vice president of air operations at American Airlines and now a consultant in Minneapolis.
Campbell said there has long been concern about the FAA’s technology, and not just the NOTAM system.
Many of those systems “are old mainframe systems that are generally reliable, but they are out of date,” he said.
John Cox, a former airline pilot and aviation safety expert, said the aviation industry has talked for years about trying to modernize the NOTAM system, but he did not know the age of the servers that the FAA uses.
“I’ve been flying 53 years. I’ve never heard the system go down like this,” Cox said. “So something unusual happened.”