US air travel grounded by “damaged” file on FAA’s system

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Wednesday, January 11, thousands of flights arriving and departing the United States were delayed, and hundreds were canceled. The cause: a corrupted file that wreaked havoc on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) primary and backup computer systems.

The faulty file explicitly affected the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system. NOTAM provides safety information to pilots and flight crews, including alerts of potential dangers along a flight path. With this critical system out of commission, all outbound flights from the United States were grounded until approximately 9 AM Eastern time.

4,948 flights in or out of the country were delayed and 868 were canceled as of 3 PM GMT on Wednesday. Most of the delays occurred on the East Coast. Air traffic gradually resumed regular operation as the NOTAM system came back online.

The same day, the FAA issued an update on the event, “We are continuing a thorough review to determine the root cause of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system outage. Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyberattack.”

Mark Stone, a correspondent for Sky News, was at Virginia’s Ronald Reagan airport during the outage. He aptly called the glitch “an almighty mess for the aviation industry in the United States” and described the conditions as “chaos for passengers.”

President Biden was alerted of the outage by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. She confirmed there was no evidence of a cyberattack causing the problem, and the President directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to investigate the source of the outage thoroughly. The President told reporters that he had spoken to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and instructed him “to report directly to me.”

Buttigieg has ordered a review of the situation as cries for aviation system overhauls came in.

“These kinds of disruptions should not happen, and my primary interest now that we’ve gotten through the immediate disruptions of the morning is understanding exactly how this was possible and exactly what steps are needed to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he noted.

Cover Image: Wall Street Journal

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