Will the FAA’s NOTAM system disaster turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Agency?  If the FAA plays its cards right, the answer will be, “Yes.” 

On January 11, 2023, the FAA was forced to take the unprecedented step of grounding all U.S. flights for several hours due to a computer issue.  In particular, the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system went down and could not be accessed by users.  The system is vital to aviation safety, as it is used to convey essential information that can affect flight safety on short notice.

In the aftermath, many have noted that the FAA has been “struggling” to upgrade its computer systems and to “modernize some long-standing parts of air traffic control.”  As a result, the ageing NOTAM infrastructure was not as resilient as it might otherwise have been to this type of error.

In addition, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG) released a report last year on the FAA’s difficulties in upgrading its infrastructure and implementing its decades-long Next Generation Air Transportation System (NEXTGEN) project.  According to the DOT-OIG, the NEXTGEN system has failed to deliver the benefits promised, and continues to face issues due to overly optimistic assumptions and an underestimation of the technical challenges.

As always, the ultimate authority in determining what resources get allocated to the FAA, and how those resources are used, rests with the Congress.  Not surprisingly, the new House of Representatives is eager to take up such a high-profile, newsworthy issue, and make its mark on policy.  What is surprising to many, however, is that this is a bi-partisan issue, and Congress seems determined to learn what the root problems are and to take steps to fix them.

Last week, the House passed a bill aimed at reviewing and recommending improvements to the NOTAM pilot alert system.  The bill, which passed with an overwhelming 424-4 majority, will establish a joint industry/government task-force that is charged with looking for ways to boost the system’s stability and keep it safe from cyber-attacks.

It is important to keep in mind that this is all occurring just as the Congress is set to start the massive 2023 FAA reauthorization process.  The FAA’s last five-year authorization runs out at the end of this summer, and the pressure will be on Congress to reexamine all of the FAA’s activities, refocus the agency’s efforts where appropriate, and provide the funding necessary to achieve those goals.

The NOTAM problem seems to have put the Congress into a bipartisan, problem-solving mood for now.  Hopefully, the FAA will be able to build on this effort, and keep up the momentum going into the reauthorization fight.  If they can, then at least one good thing will come out of the massive inconvenience air travelers had to suffer with on January 11.