Congress continues to demand answers following last month’s shutdown of the national airspace resulting from a computer system issue at the Federal Aviation Administration.
More than 10,000 flights in the U.S. were delayed or canceled as a technical failure forced the FAA to pause departures nationwide for about 90 minutes on the morning of Jan. 11.
“A preliminary FAA review of last week’s outage of the Notice to Air Missions system determined that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database,” an FAA statement on preliminary findings said.
A week after the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spoke to safety officials, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee grilled the FAA’s acting administrator Billy Nolen about what the agency was doing to prevent another major outage.
Here were the key takeaways from the hearing.
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1. Modernization is underway
Throughout his time before the committee, Nolen emphasized that the FAA is working to upgrade its systems and integrate new technologies into the national airspace.
A major piece of that work, he said, is upgrading the Notice To Air Missions (NOTAM) system that failed last month. Nolen said he expects a new version of that system to be fully deployed in 2025, though Nolen added that he has directed his team to explore ways to accelerate that work.
“We have been on a journey of modernization,” he said. “When we think about the age of our system and the age of the system that we have, we do have redundancy there. 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 we are making every effort to look at and modernize our procedures.”
Nolen explained that a key part of the NOTAM upgrade is migrating those notices to a new system. While the new, so-called federal NOTAM interface is already in place, some users still rely on an older way of accessing the information, and that older system is what the FAA expects to sunset in 2025.
He added that the NOTAM upgrades are not the only thing the FAA is working on.
“We don’t want to leave the committee with the impression that we fix NOTAMs and we’re done,” he said.
2. Immediate fixes were put in place
Nolen explained that part of the issue that caused the NOTAM outage was how the primary and backup systems synchronize with each other. He explained that when the file that caused the outage was deleted from the live system, the error was quickly synced to the backup system, rendering that unusable, too. Many senators expressed concern over this single point of failure and encouraged the administrator to use the agency’s resources to establish a more independent backup system.
Nolen said that in the meantime, the agency has implemented a new process for how the primary and backup systems are synchronized.
“We have instituted a one-hour synchronization delay between the primary database and the backup database,” he said. “We believe the fixes that we have in place today will prevent a recurrence of the event we saw on Jan. 11.”
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3. The FAA’s review continues
Even so, Nolen said, the agency continues to investigate the issue, as well as other recent safety incidents including a high-profile runway incursion at John F. Kennedy International Airport and a near-miss at Austin Bergstrom International Airport in Texas.
“I formed the safety review team to examine the U.S. aerospace system’s structure, culture, processes, systems and integration of safety effort,” Nolen said, adding that the FAA is working to “assess the totality of our systems of which there are thousands to make sure what we have from a resilience perspective and we expect that work to be completed here in the coming weeks.”
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4. Safety remains a priority
According to Nolen, the FAA always has safety at the forefront of every decision, change and upgrade it makes.
“Our system is very safe. At the same time, we don’t take that safety for granted,” he said. “I have a good sense of where we are. Can I say to the American public that we’re safe? We are. If the question is: can we be better? Absolutely, and that’s the piece we’re working on.”
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5. Climate change and cyber threats remain a concern
In addition to its own system upgrades, Nolen said the FAA is participating in a government-wide effort to address global concerns like climate change and cybersecurity threats.
“It is how resilient are our systems and the extent to which we build that in, bake that in. Certainly, the industry globally is investing in technology to be more resilient,” he said on climate change.
In the cybersecurity realm, Nolen said the FAA is working with other agencies including the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that its tech systems remain secure.
“We undertake a biannual cyber response plan and when we practice that plan on a biannual basis we work in close concert with other agencies,” he said. “We are working across every agency and every department within the government around cyber, around cyber resilience.”
Story Credit: usatoday.com