The Feds Should Compensate Travelers for FAA Failures

Government Regulation, Operations

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.

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42 comments on “The Feds Should Compensate Travelers for FAA Failures

  1. I’m not a civics expert, but I doubt the FAA has the authority to make that sort of reimbursement to travelers, even if it wanted to.

    1. Only if Congress approves an appropriation and the President signs it into law.

      But with today’s bizarre regulatory environment, who knows?

      1. Just like how Congress passed and the President signed an appropriation to pay for canceling everyone’s student loans. Oh wait, that’s not how that happened.

        1. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some authority the FAA could find that Congress has authorized that could be used for this purpose, just like there in fact is Congressionally-approved authority for the President to cancel student loans. But the logistics sure wouldn’t be easy, since the FAA doesn’t know who flew, who was delayed, and how much they paid. Would be much easier for the FAA to reimburse airlines (or at least provide some compensation to airlines) if the airlines refund or pay compensation to delayed travellers.

          The flip side is that I’m sure the airlines would take the money from the Feds and then still refuse to pay compensation to travellers because the delay was out of the airlines’ control.

  2. Hi Cranky, I noticed this appear to not have as much a negative impact on FedEx and UPS overnight flights? Those appear to mostly operated as normal. Their pilots need to read NOTAM as well before departure, do they?

    1. Wany – I think many of the overnight flights were able to operate since the previous NOTAMs before the system went down were still valid. At least, that’s my best guess.

  3. I realize some of this is a bit tongue in cheek and some schadenfreude speaking, but I definitely don’t think tax dollars should be spent paying for someone’s Hilton hotel bill or dinner because their flight was delayed 12 hours. The FAA should fix their issues, but there’s a bit of a difference between a Company paying for their mess up (WN) vs the entire US Taxpayer base paying a few people due to poor infrastructure investment.

  4. This at least brings attention to the inefficiencies of the NOTAM system (yesterday was MEME heaven in this regard). So many NOTAMS insignificant to most operations that important ones (like a localizer out of service) end up being missed. That’s not to mention the reporting style that many of us who’ve been flying for years still get confused by. We were hoping for real NOTAM reform. Instead we got a change to the name to reflect the fact that “Airmen” is apparently offensive.

    1. I usually roll my eyes pretty hard at de-gendering words. But I’m with the FDA on this one. “Airman” feels like a heavy-duty 1950s anachronism in a profession that still hasn’t come anywhere near male/female parity. If I were a female line pilot, I’d probably be bummed at seeing that terminology from the government that takes my tax dollars.

      I think finding an alternate phrasing that preserved the acronym was the right call.

      1. Yeah. And it’s not like if only they had spent the effort it takes to create a new backronym that doesn’t use gendered terminology they could have fixed the underlying flaws. The fact that there are hard things that haven’t been done and are fundamental doesn’t mean you don’t do easy things that are important but far less fundamental.

      2. Yeah, I’m not one to get too worked up over de-gendering, but my point was more that they’ve refused to change anything substantive about the NOTAM system that might make aviation safer.

    2. The VAS Aviation channel on YouTube posted a compilation of ATC/pilot conversations when the ground stop was first implemented. “Nobody reads NOTAMS!” was the memorable (and hopefully tongue-in-cheek) response from a B6 pilot at EWR when told of the situation.

      1. An airline pilot who says that should ask his dispatcher if that’s true. Somebody *has* to read the NOTAMs because they tell you if runways are closed or the ILS is out of service. An airline pilot would say something like that because his dispatcher would never dispatch the flight if important things are closed/broken/unavailable.

        1. Exactly… And in the comments for that video, there are stories of near misses from pilots who did NOT read NOTAMs, such as the Southwest pilot who proudly reported over the radio that he broke out of the clouds and saw the runway at 400′ in low visibility (which, in that situation would have been within the usual minimums), demonstrating that the pilot hadn’t read the NOTAM regarding a higher than normal decision altitude due to a crane near the runway.

  5. The Feds Should Compensate Travelers for FAA Failures.

    Counterpoint… they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into! I say… let it crash. LOL

    1. Absolutely brilliant! Especially when the guy looks right into the camera. You win Comment of the Month IMO!

  6. There is a lot of political and media mileage over families stuck at airports, grandmothers stuck at airports etc. It would seem that one side could “be on the side of travelers” direct a moderate amount of government investment in this area and get a lot of milage for it.

    We seem to be outstanding at building shiny expensive airports, but lousy at common sense measures. The whole trajectory-based FAA system (NextGen 2.0) seems pretty cool — I would easily support a few bucks extra a ticket in modernization of things. But less so on shiny new Cinnabons. . .

  7. Highly disagree. For starters the FAA airspace is a modern marvel in it’s own right and it’s time for congress to actually own up for causing mistakes in the firs place by not adequately funding gaps in aviation. Boeing and FAA certification – cost savings measure because congress can’t do their job.

    The NOTAM system has been a pita for years:

    Isn’t the contractor also at fault here? Or is the private sector that bullet proof?

    The NOTAM system and ICAO compliance are far too onerous to be useful for lazy pilots who can barely read. I don’t know what the answer is but pilling on the executive branch of the Feds for what is Congress’ mistakes isn’t where to start.

  8. Well said, CF. A pot or kettle situation for sure. My question: Is there not redundancy/a backup or workaround in place to keep something like this from shutting down the entire system? I’m no expert, but it worries me that the air traffic system is that vulnerable and susceptible to something like this without a workaround that doesn’t inconvenience airlines, passengers, etc.

    1. Eric – I wish I knew more, but there apparently isn’t enough redundancy to avoid this issue this time. You’d imagine that’s something that could be fixed pretty quickly.

  9. Eh, I think the FAA should be required to disgorge the air traffic control services and do what the Canadians do: have air traffic control and all its related services in a non-profit funded by user fees, with a board of users and a government official or two.

    This’d put the FAA in the seat of actually having some distance from the ATC organization and being able to effectively regulate it.

    So for why it is so cryptic? I’d bet it’s a hold over from when data transmission was expensive and slow, so every letter that gets cut out mattrs.

      1. Bob, Not private industry. A non-profit accountable to the users and the government. Ideally you also structure it to favor off the shelf solutions that already are functioning, not custom designed software that fills the coffers of contractors. IMHO, they should buy/license the software that NavCanada has written. (I’ve read that NavCanada does sell/license its software to other ATC services, but I can’t find a handy source right now.)

        As for airports, most of them are in some sort of government owned quasi-non-profit. They generally don’t take tax revenue and are funded by fees, so letting private industry in there is just going to make things more expensive because of the profit motive.

          1. Their system had a brief failure that didn’t cause any delays. So yes, I’d take the NavCanada stuff over the US stuff any day.

            I’d encourage you to look at NavCanada more closely. They’ve done a good bit of modernizing that the FAA has been promising for 20+ years.

  10. The Canadian NOTAM system also went down yesterday (a couple hours after the US system was restored). Canadian authorities say they don’t know why but they know it’s unrelated to the US NOTAM system failure. All very curious.

  11. The FAA is a regulatory authority . As such it would set a horrible precedent for them to pay out to passengers. Would you likewise suggest that if a traffic cop has a heart attack on the job then the police owe anyone stuck in traffic? We could take this further: How about if NFL referees were held responsible for gambling losses stemming from any bad calls?

  12. I may be wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit that the way I read this was colored by my own opinions on the matter, but… I don’t really interpret this post as a serious attempt by Brett to make an argument that the FAA (read: taxpayers) should compensate travelers for delays from the NOTAM malfunction.

    Rather, to me it seems more like Brett is pointing out the shades of… (not sure if “hypocrisy” or “double standards” are the right words), given that Uncle Sam had is own major systems issue shortly after (and while the Feds were still publicly chastising) Southwest’s systems meltdown during the holidays, and essentially parodying the feds’ response to the WN debacle. I know many people are thinking/saying things along those lines, some more publicly than others.

  13. I flew DTW-IAD-LHR on Wednesday, and it was the most trouble-free travel experience that I’ve had in 6 months. Huzzah for NOTAM outages if that is the consequence (although I really expect it’s because I didn’t need to go via the cesspit that is EWR).

  14. FAA is just like any other inefficient government agency, forget about redundant backups and stuff like that. They are regulatory captured by the airline industry. In this case they all got what they deserve for being greedy and trying to cram too many jets in the sky – operational failure. Three NextGen navigational paths are a disaster because they dump an inordinate amount of pollution and nose on the laser focused flight paths. The plan was to use this to get even more dense flight traffic. But they can’t even handle the current volume of traffic due to their incompetence. They should keep the GPS but go back to distributed flight paths and keep the current throughput. There is no need for more flights in the sky than we already have now, and it will only serve to increase pollution and safety incidents.

    1. I got now idea what “Three NextGen navigational paths are a disaster” is referring to, but it is true that the runways are the bottlenecks, and until we can get more runways or increase throughput, much of everything else is just window dressing.

    2. Ok no more flights.

      Who are you going to tell that they can’t fly? Or are you just going to price it out of the range of some?

      The naïveté of some folks is palatable.

      1. It’s not all or nothing. There is a reason why FAA has been sued by numerous municipalities over NextGen. It’s due to the laser focused flight concentration that exceeds legal noise limits as far as 10 miles from the ANZ. It’s basically regulatory capture. Big government overreach trampling on the rights of property owners.

  15. I got caught up in this and ended up with >$500 in expenses when my flight misconnected in DFW. I had to get a hotel room and pay for meals, transportation, etc. Of course the hotel RM systems were taking full advantage. The airline isn’t going to do anything since this wasn’t their fault, so I would love it if the Feds would cover this. I’ll take cash, but would also take a tax credit if that would be easier.

  16. Off topic (somewhat) but a few years ago, UA dispatched an ORD-BUF flight that had to do an air return back to ORD because… all the runways at BUF were closed. Apparently the flight was scheduled to arrive when a runway was open but got delayed to a time when all the runways were closed.

    I was curious how that could have happened, so I pulled the NOTAMs. At the time, there was one runway NOTAM’d closed for like three months, and the second was closed for that particular night between 10p and 6a local (or something like that). But the way the NOTAMs were structured, there was something like 20 NOTAMs between the two.

    The other thing is, all the runways can be closed and the airport can still be open. You’d think in situations where all runways closed, you’d get some kind of pinned NOTAM at the top saying nothing is open for landing.

  17. There we go suggesting giving away another person’s money. You pay them or the airlines pay them. I don’t want to. The nation is broke as in we don’t have any money. Save money, have Congress telecommute, they are never in DC anyway.

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