FAA outage that grounded flights blamed on old tech and damaged database file

Travelers wait in a terminal at Reagan National Airport during a delay.
Enlarge / Travelers wait in a terminal at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, during an FAA outage that grounded flights across the US on January 11, 2023.
Getty Images | Saul Loeb

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A Notice to Air Missions system outage that grounded flights across the US yesterday morning seems to have been caused by a damaged database file, the Federal Aviation Administration said last night.

“The FAA is continuing a thorough review to determine the root cause of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system outage,” the FAA statement said. “Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyber attack. 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.”

Citing an anonymous source, CNN reported that “air traffic control officials realized they had a computer issue late Tuesday” and decided “to reboot the system when it would least disrupt air travel, early on Wednesday morning. But ultimately that plan and the outage led to massive flight delays and an unprecedented order to stop all aircraft departures nationwide.”

CNN also wrote that one corrupt file was found in the main NOTAM system, and another corrupt file was found in the backup system. CNN provided more details as follows:

In the overnight hours of Tuesday into Wednesday, FAA officials decided to shut down and reboot the main NOTAM system—a significant decision, because the reboot can take about 90 minutes, according to the source.

They decided to perform the reboot early Wednesday, before air traffic began flying on the East Coast, to minimize disruption to flights. “They thought they’d be ahead of the rush,” the source said.

When the system came back online, “it wasn’t completely pushing out the pertinent information that it needed for safe flight, and it appeared that it was taking longer to do that,” CNN quoted its source as saying.

FAA computer problem in the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system caused flight delays at major airports in Florida less than two weeks ago.

On its website, the FAA says it is “modernizing the NOTAM system to improve the delivery of safety critical information to aviation stakeholders,” with the goal of “provid[ing] pilots, flight crews, and other users of the National Airspace System (NAS) with NOTAMs that are relevant, timely and accurate.”

The FAA has struggled to modernize its computer and air traffic operations, a Reuters article pointed out today. “In October, for example, the FAA said it was working to end a long-ridiculed, decades-old practice of air traffic controllers using paper flight strips to keep track of aircraft. But adopting the change at 49 major airports will take the FAA until late 2029,” Reuters wrote.

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