Cantwell grills FAA head on safety of air travel, recent close calls

WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the safety of air travel as he answered questions about recent close calls between planes and the major outage of a critical safety system for pilots last month.

Acting FAA administrator, Billy Nolen, said Wednesday he has formed a team to review efforts to keep air travel safe. He says the FAA is putting in place changes to avoid another breakdown in a safety-alert system known as NOTAM or Notice-to-Air-Missions. That system failed last month and forced the FAA to issue a ground stop in place for all flights.

Nolen was also quizzed about some recent close calls on runways where planes could have collided.

The hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Wednesday morning gave senators a chance to grill the FAA on what it is doing overall to improve safety in aviation. That included getting an explanation about last month’s outage.

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell chairs the transportation committee and she had some pointed questions for acting administrator Nolen about the NOTAM system. Last month, it was revealed that a damaged database file was the source of the massive computer outage that lead to a nationwide ground stop, something we hadn’t seen since Sept. 11, 2001.

Lawmakers did get some more details about the NOTAM system’s failure from Jan.10, through to the next day Jan 11. The system went down and led to more than 10,000 flights being canceled or delayed during that time period.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that technicians tried to switch to backup databanks and they thought they had fixed the problem. Nolen revealed that some personnel accidentally deleted files while working to correct synchronization between the primary system and the backups.

We also learned that any updates done to the system actually impacted both the primary system and the backup, which implies there’s really no backup at all, an issue that was a major concern for Sen. Cantwell during an exchange with Nolen.

Her office sent out the verbatim exchange from the hearing.

Sen. Cantwell: Let’s drill down on the NOTAM system. One of the issues from my understanding and you are saying that this involved an individual deleting the wrong set of files. We have a backup redundant system, why couldn’t we just go to that system?

Acting Administrator Nolen: Thank you, Madam Chair, for the question.

So, we do have a backup system. A part of how the system works is that as you do updates to the system, as you delete, outdated NOTAMS, it synchronizes across both the primary backup and the other two backups. So part of that synchronization once we realize it, once the…

Sen. Cantwell: So the structure of the architecture is not favorable to true redundancy?

Acting Administrator Nolen: Which is one of the reasons we’re in the middle of this whole modernization effort.

Sen. Cantwell: So you’re agreeing with me, is that right?

Acting Administrator Nolen: Yes, ma’am. I’m agreeing with you that we have a 30-year-old system. Let me just say to the point 80% of the users are already on our newer system, which is the federal NOTAM system.

We still have some critical users on the U.S. NOTAM system, which is 30 years old. Primarily, you have DOD, you have the Alaska Aviation in Alaska, and our international users are still on that system. But again, we’re working to be off of that system by FY25.

Sen. Cantwell: So I think the NTSB is, you know, the authorization bill, we wanted to make progress on this, and so they’re basically saying that we aren’t making progress on this. What is your response to how we’re going to not (wait) until 2025?

I get that you’re saying now ‘I’m going to back up on the human factor.’ Really, is what you’re saying ‘I’m going to back up on the human factor and make sure that this never happens?’ Because one individual being on the spot, but really, it’s the architecture of the system that doesn’t give us true redundancy. So, is there a way to solve that before we go two years into the modernization?

Acting Administrator Nolen: Yeah, we will continue on this journey of modernization. I’ve asked and I’ve directed our team to look at what is our ability to accelerate that timeline. Can we pull it into…

Sen. Cantwell: I’m asking you what you can do about the existing system today to give you true redundancy. You’re trying to give me human factor redundancy and another individual, but when in reality, I’m pointing out that the architecture of the system isn’t true redundancy. Because if the deletion impacted both systems, yes, then you don’t really have redundancy, you don’t have a separate reboot. Our electricity goes off in our house, we go to the generator, if you have one, right? So in this case, the backup didn’t work either because it was affected by the same deletion.

So you don’t have to answer all of it right here, but I need an answer on this issue of redundancy to the system. Because while we want to modernize, and we want to have the right resources, and we got a pretty good offer from our colleagues to drill down with us on the appropriation side to make sure that we have a clear understanding.

And I really do think this has been an issue in the past. I really do think that appropriators need to understand the technology needs of the FAA and support them. But what can we do now to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Acting Administrator Nolen: Well, thank you. There’s several things that we’ve done.

Number one, we have instituted a one-hour synchronization delay between the primary database and the backup database that gives us time to make sure that we have no issues there.

Secondly, we’ve increased the level of oversight to ensure the more than one person is available when work or updates are being done on the live database, along with up-leveling our level of oversight within the command center to ensure that we’ve got leadership present.

So those of course are more in the area of administrative controls but the work continues to get off of the U.S. NOTAM system and on to the federal NOTAM system.

Sen. Cantwell: I’m going to come back at you and ask that you work with contractors to find out how to get us true redundancy in the short term in a backup database that is truly independent and could operate at the same instance if this happened again.

So in my sense of this near miss with Southwest Airlines and a cargo carrier, was Southwest in a position earlier than their slot. Is that what happened?

Cantwell pressed the FAA on this issue saying that an actual real backup is needed now. Nolen said the FAA is doing a full system update but it won’t be complete until 2025. He added that the agency has made sure that any work on the NOTAM system will now feature a delay for synchronizing the primary and backup systems. The agency also is increasing staff that will work on updates

In January, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stressed that the NOTAM failure did not have a major impact on operations at the airport, but Sen. Cantwell said that we can’t afford to have a critical safety system for pilots fail.

Nolen did say there’s going to be a sweeping review of aviation systems to keep air travel safe.

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