FAA outage may start fresh skirmish with airlines | The Hill

A traveler looks at a flight board with delays and cancellations at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. Flights are being delayed at multiple locations across the United States after a computer outage at the Federal Aviation Administration. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Federal Aviation Administration computer system outage that disrupted thousands of flights on Wednesday could set the stage for another clash between airlines and the agency.

Airlines and the FAA traded blame over the cause of mass flight delays and cancellations this summer, and carriers have lamented that the FAA has gone eight months without a Senate-confirmed administrator. 

Wednesday’s outage — the most disruptive FAA failure in recent memory — sparked renewed calls for the agency to revamp its aging systems.

“Today’s FAA catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades. Americans deserve an end-to-end travel experience that is seamless and secure. And our nation’s economy depends on a best-in-class air travel system,” Geoff Freeman, head of the U.S. Travel Association, which represents American Airlines, Delta and United, said in a statement.

The FAA’s Notice to Air Missions system, or NOTAM — which notifies pilots of potential hazards on their route such as runway closures or airspace restrictions — failed late on Tuesday, grounding planes across the country for several hours on Wednesday morning.

Ripple effects from the initial disruptions resulted in mass delays and cancellations. 

Airlines on Wednesday delayed more than 8,000 U.S. flights and canceled over 1,200 more, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. Around one-third of flights at major hubs in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., were delayed.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged Wednesday afternoon that the FAA still did not know the source of the outage and didn’t rule out the possibility of nefarious activity such as a cyberattack but noted there was no evidence of foul play.

“I hope that Mr. Buttigieg realizes he’s got a real challenge on his hands, and Southwest Airlines is not at the top of the list anymore,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant at Boyd Group International.  

Tensions between airlines and the Biden administration were already high after carriers struggled with disruptions during some of the biggest travel weekends of the year. Buttigieg has pressed airlines to improve their service and ensure that customers get proper refunds. 

Buttigieg is investigating Southwest after the airline canceled roughly 17,000 flights around Christmas due to scheduling system failures, an unprecedented meltdown that disrupted millions of travelers’ plans and left many stranded for days.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaks to the Transportation Research Board gathering in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The world’s largest aircraft fleet was grounded for hours by a cascading outage in a government system that delayed or canceled thousands of flights across the U.S. on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Amid a flurry of cancellations over the summer, airlines sought to place blame on the FAA for not having sufficient air traffic control staffing.

United Airlines wrote in a memo to employees that there were “more flights scheduled industrywide than the ATC staffing system can handle,” while the airline industry’s top trade group criticized the FAA for not having enough employees at certain airports. 

The FAA fired back, accusing airlines of using the agency as a scapegoat for their own failures and other unavoidable issues.

“The reality is that multiple overlapping factors have affected the system, including airline staffing levels, weather, high volume and ATC capacity, but the majority of delays and cancellations are not because of staffing at FAA,” the agency said at the time. 

The industry has also bemoaned that the FAA has been without a permanent chief since March 2022, when Trump-appointed administrator Steve Dixon stepped down. 

Airline officials have privately grumbled about President Biden’s nominee to take over the FAA job, Phil Washington, who became CEO of Denver International Airport in 2021 but otherwise has very little aviation experience. 

Biden nominated Washington in July, but he still hasn’t received a Senate hearing. Republican senators ramped up their opposition after Washington was named in a search warrant investigating no-bid contracts he awarded as head of Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Wednesday’s system outage is the biggest test yet for the FAA, and it comes as Congress crafts legislation to reauthorize the agency’s funding this year. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee that spearheads the funding bill, said Wednesday that the FAA outage will play a role in the committee’s deliberations. 

“The number one priority is safety. As the committee prepares for FAA reauthorization legislation, we will be looking into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages. The public needs a resilient air transportation system,” Cantwell said in a statement.   

Experts say that more money could help speed up overhauls of its NOTAM system. The FAA has been working on a new program, dubbed the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, for nearly two decades.

“Could it be improved? Of course it could. It costs money. That’s always a challenge,” former FAA administrator Randy Babbitt said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Still, aviation experts warned that FAA reauthorization won’t come in time to address the current issues with the system, whatever they may be. 

“Congress stepping in normally doesn’t do a whole lot of immediate good in the near term,” Boyd said. “What really has to happen is there has to be better leadership at the FAA.” 


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