Is there any chance we could just get through one damn week without some travel-disrupting failure? No? I suppose it’s too much to ask. Of course, the irony of this week’s failure by a key Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) system is just a little too delicious to ignore. If the FAA wants to make a bold move, it should offer to pay for all the disruptions people experienced today. It won’t.
There is a system that publishes NOTAMs — or NOtices To Air Missions (formerly NOtices To AirMen, but apparently other AirPeople and AirAutonomousVehicles now get notices as well) — and those must be reviewed before any flight. This provides crucial updates about issues at airfields, and you can look them up yourself if you’d like.
Some of the updates are pretty mundane. For example, I just looked at Long Beach and this has apparently been an issue since December 23:
!LGB 12/115 LGB TWY L NO ENTRY SIGN BTN TWY L2 AND TWY L3 MISSING 2212231522-2301271415
Yep, a sign is missing. But sometimes they’re more important, like this one from LaGuardia which talks about a taxiway closure that was set to last for half of yesterday.
!LGA 01/074 (KLGA A0149/23) LGA TWY F BTN TWY BB AND TWY D CLSD 2301111250-2301112000
Or how about Santa Barbara which still has runway closure issues, presumably from flooding.
!SBA 01/079 (KSBA A0141/23) SBA RWY 15L/33R CLSD 2301112150-2301121400
!SBA 01/078 (KSBA A0140/23) SBA RWY 15R/33L CLSD 2301112150-2301121400
NOTAMs can be used for just about everything, and I don’t just mean something on the ground. They can impact approaches, departure paths, etc. And when I say EVERYTHING, I mean it. Here are some of the odder ones that have been noted. And here is one that should be filed.
In short, this is how airports notify aircraft what kind of restrictions or issues might exist. It is a key component in ensuring safety, so if you can’t get access to these NOTAMs, you aren’t flying.
NOTAMs that get issued do have a shelf life, so when the FAA system that puts out these NOTAMs failed yesterday, it didn’t require all traffic to just stop. The problem arose when those NOTAMs started to expire, and new ones weren’t available because the system failed. That meant by this morning, traffic ground to a halt until the system could be restored.
Lucky for the airlines, the worst of this happened overnight, but I can assure you that anyone working in operations planning did not get much sleep as they planned for the worst and hoped for the best. I’d say the end result was somewhere in between.
According to these spartan statements out of the FAA, at 7:15am ET, things were getting ugly enough that they had to issue a ground stop for all domestic departures until 9am. Some flying was able to resume at 8:15am in Atlanta and Newark where things were worse than elsewhere. At 8:50am, the ground stop was lifted and operations started returning to normal but the damage was done.
When I looked at around 3:45pm ET yesterday, Flightaware was showing about 1,250 flights canceled and another 8,000 or so delayed. Compare that to the previous day which had less than 200 flights canceled and about 4,500 delayed for the entire day. The FAA failure snarled the system.
Nobody can miss the irony in all this. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg was quick to jump on Southwest for its failures, and even posted this on Twitter yesterday saying DOT would “continue to hold Southwest to its responsibility.”
That’s great. Keep doing that. But who should be responsible when it’s the FAA that causes all those cancellations and delays? It should be the federal government. If Buttigieg wants to make a strong statement in support of travelers, he should announce that the government will take care of all expenses since it was the government’s fault they occurred.
This would send an important message that DOT can not only talk the talk, but it can also walk the walk. Doing this would show it is serious about taking care of travelers and not just penalizing airlines. I don’t mind at all that DOT has put a ton of pressure on Southwest. Good. But for the government to avoid undermining its message, it should put its money where its mouth is.
It’s easy to say that, but exactly how does the money get divided up? If a flight is canceled, the airline is responsible for refunding the ticket. Should DOT reimburse the airlines for that cost? There are questions to be answered, but these are not unsolvable issues.
Buttigieg, to his credit, has been very present and has even put a video out on Twitter. Good. But communication is only half the battle. Let’s see DOT actually step up and show it’s serious. It’s too bad that won’t happen.