US flights ops normalise after FAA NOTAM systems outage

A mid-week systems failure at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which grounded flights across the United States is being attributed to a damaged database file. The 90-minute nationwide flight grounding on January 10 led to the cancellation or delay of more than 11,300 flights. It was the first nationwide flight shutdown since September 11, 2001.

According to the FAA, the NOTAM system briefly went down around 1530L (2030Z) on Tuesday, January 10. A backup system was deployed but the main system soon restored with no initial signs of problems. However, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg later told media that by that evening it was clear “there were still issues with the accuracy of the information that was moving through the NOTAM system.”

A reboot during the early hours of January 11 was “not sufficiently validated,” according to Buttigieg and a ground stop order was issued at 0721L (1221Z) which lasted 90 minutes but caused a cascading series of flight delays and cancellations. “There is no evidence of a cyber attack,” says an FAA statement. “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.” “Our number one priority is safety,” said Buttigieg.

The secretary tweeted on the morning of January 12 that operations were returning to normal. FlightAware data reveals more than 11,000 flights were delayed and 1,300 flights cancelled across the US on Wednesday, January 11. However, flights were normalising by Thursday, with just over 1,150 delays and 103 cancellations so far – an average daily rate.

Major US carriers, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines also reported no major problems on Thursday. A US Senate committee will investigate the shutdown and what caused it. “Just as Southwest’s widespread disruption just a few weeks ago was inexcusable, so to is the DOT’s and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” Republican senator and chair of the infrastructure and transportation committee, Sam Graves, told Reuters. That news outlet also reported on a separate outage of the Canadian NOTAM system on January 11.

The unconnected outage meant new safety notices could not be electronically distributed but NAV Canada was able to manually manage the outage without any significant levels of flight disruptions.

“Existing NOTAMs remained accessible and our air traffic services staff and airports were able to relay any new information directly to operators,” said a NAV Canada spokesperson.