House Passes Bill to Improve FAA System That Failed, Led to Grounding of All US Flights

The House on Jan. 25 passed a bipartisan bill to help improve the pilot notification system operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that failed earlier this month and caused all flights across the United States to be grounded.

The agency’s Notice To Air Missions (NOTAM) system failed for the first time in history on Jan. 11. The system is critical for relaying essential information to flights. It alerts pilots of potential hazards along a flight route, or at a spot that could affect the flight’s safety. Such hazards might include runway closures, airspace restrictions, to snow, volcanic ash, or birds near airports.

That system failure prompted the FAA to ground all U.S. flights to ensure safety. The move affected more than 11,300 flights for several hours. It marked the first nationwide grounding of domestic flights in about two decades, since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

H.R. 346, the NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023 (pdf), would create a task force under the FAA to propose ways to help make the system more stable and protected from cyber attacks.

According to the text of the bill, the task force could comprise at least one air carrier representative, union official, general or business aviation representative, an aviation safety expert with knowledge of NOTAMs, human factor expert, and a computer system architecture and cybersecurity expert.

The legislation passed the House with a vote of 424-4.

It’s the third time it has passed the chamber. Previously, in the past two Congresses, the Senate didn’t take up the proposed legislation.

Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.), who introduced the bill, said on Twitter following the bill’s passing that if passed, it “will improve aviation safety by requiring clearer safety notifications to pilots and updates to NOTAM’s computer system.”

On the House floor, Stauber encouraged senators to pass the legislation to guard against future failures of the NOTAM system.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) co-led the bipartisan bill with Stauber. “The FAA meltdown this month that led to thousands of cancelled flights made even clearer the need to modernize our aviation safety system,” DeSaulnier said in a statement.

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A flight information display lists canceled and delayed flights due to an FAA outage that grounded flights across the United States at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 11, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, praised the legislation, calling it “a step toward improving the NOTAM system and maintaining the safety of our skies.” He said he urges Congress to “prioritize additional resources for the FAA to improve NOTAMs and all of the air traffic management systems necessary to keep flying safe—and America’s air transportation system moving.”

Outage Due to Deleted Files

The FAA on Jan. 19 announced that a preliminary review of the NOTAM outage suggests that government contractors had “unintentionally deleted files” while “working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database,” which led to the outage.

The FAA said it would continue to investigate but also noted that it had yet to find any signs of a cyber attack or any bad actors. It added that it has “made the necessary repairs” to the system and is working to make it more resilient.

Eric Blinderman, the senior director of communications at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, previously told The Epoch Times that there is no backup for the NOTAM system that can be used in case of a long-term outage, which is part of what caused the ground stop.

According to Blinderman, the impact is so widespread because the FAA oversees the national airspace and all operations at and around the more than 5,000 public-use airports nationwide. This could potentially cause delays that stretch into the next days or even weeks.

“All pilots should be concerned about delays. Regulations state that all pilots—commercial and private—need to be aware of all aspects of their flights, and the NOTAM system provides up-to-date information essential to all flights,” Blinderman said.

While FAA officials have been involved in efforts to modernize the NOTAM system in recent years, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said that the NOTAM system is constantly being updated, but it’s not clear that it’s outdated.

“We will not allow anything to take place that is not safe,” Buttigieg told reporters earlier in January. “This is precisely why our focus right now is on understanding, identifying, and correcting anything related to the root cause of how this happened in the first place.”

The infrastructure bill Congress passed last year allocated around $5 billion for air traffic control facilities, with some congressional staffers suggesting some of that money could be spent on equipment upgrades that would improve the NOTAM system. Buttigieg said that any NOTAM upgrade might have to wait for a new funding bill that allocates money to the FAA.

Congress is set to reauthorize the FAA’s funding for five years. The current five-year authorization of FAA programs expires on Sept. 30 this year.

“I think this gives us a really important data point and a really important moment to understand what we’re going to need moving forward,” Buttigieg told reporters.

Savannah Pointer and Tom Ozimek contributed to this report.

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