The Acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faced a Senate committee Wednesday to answer questions about the January system failure that led to thousands of flights being delayed or canceled.
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said the agency is now working to upgrade its systems but said most of that work isn’t expected to be finished until mid-2025.
In his opening remarks, he explained why the meltdown occurred.
“The FAA’s preliminary findings are that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization issues between the live primary database and the backup database,” said Nolen. “We have found no evidence of a cyber-attack or other malicious intent.”
The discussion mainly focused on the Notice to Air Missions, also known as NOTAM.
A NOTAM notice is important because it gives essential information about flight operations to pilots, dispatchers, and other air traffic personnel.
That’s why flights were temporarily grounded last month following the NOTAM failure.
It was the first national ground stop since the September 11th terror attacks.
“What can we do now to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” asked Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“Number one, we have instituted a one-hour synchronization delay between the primary database and the backup database,” said Nolen. “Secondly, we’ve increased the level of oversight to ensure more than one person is available when work or updates are being done on the live database.”
Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) questioned why the system upgrades still haven’t been completed since the agency first started the transition a decade ago.
“Why is it taking ten years and why is it still not done?” asked Cruz.
“It does take a while,” Nolen responded.
When pressed about the effectiveness of the changes, Nolen admitted he cannot guarantee it will prevent another error but defended the efforts underway.
“Is there redundancy being built into it or can a single screwup ground air traffic nationwide?” asked Cruz.
“Could I sit here today and tell you there will never be another issue on the NOTAM system? No sir, I cannot. What I can say is that we’re making every effort to modernize and look at our procedures,” said Nolen.
Nolen said he has ordered a sweeping safety review of the agency because of the recent problems.
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