Pilots baffled over FAA's decision to ground flights

Pilots slam ‘ridiculous’ decision to ground all US flights for the first time since 9/11 after NOTAM crashed and overwhelmed the antiquated ‘backup’ of phoning for updates

  • The FAA blamed the ground stop on the failure of its digital NOTAM system 
  • But pilots and airspace experts say such a glitch shouldn’t cause such chaos 
  • They tell DailyMail.com the NOTAM system is non-vital, and there are back-ups
  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is yet to explain the FAA’s decision  

There is growing confusion over the FAA’s decision to ground all US flights this morning following the failure of a digital safety update system which many pilots say is not crucial, and should never have halted air traffic.  

According to the FAA, a problem with its NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) system meant all flights had to land and stay grounded until 9am.   

It has now been fixed, but the outage caused catastrophic delays across the country; more than 8,000 flights have been delayed and 1,000 canceled with more disappointment on the way as airlines and airport scramble to play catchup. 

The FAA is yet to explain what prompted the outage. 

Buttigieg said at a press conference that the decision was out of an ‘abundance of caution’. 

But the FAA is yet to explain why there was no digital backup in place to snap into action once NOTAM crashed. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, speaks to reporters after speaking to the Transportation Research Board in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023

Passengers at Miami International Airport on Wednesday after a ‘computer failure’ halted all flights for several hours and delayed thousands of planes across the United States

When the system went down, pilots resorted to the previous version of the system – phoning flight service centers for updates. It was enough to keep overnight flights going but as the morning rush ensued, the calls became overwhelming. 

As a result, planes that had yet to take off were grounded.  

Canada’s NOTAM system also went down on Wednesday with no explanation – but the country’s flights continued without delay. 

Now, US pilots are also expressing their confusion, with some describing the system going down as ‘no big deal’, prompting further questions over why flights were grounded as a result. 

They say that there are plenty of other ways for pilots to receive the notices, and that until recently, it was done by phoning flight safety centers. 

Now, they are asking whether the chaos is down to the fact that there weren’t enough personnel in those safety centers to man the phones, or if it was a rush to judgement by incompetent decision-makers. 

Former Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a former Lt. Col. in the Air National Guard, tweeted that there was ‘absolutely no safety concern’. 

‘It’s no big deal at all. It is absolutely no safety concern. None. 

‘It’s nice when it’s up but there are so many other ways to get NOTAM,’ he said, fueling questions over why the flights were grounded. 

Ervin Coburn, a private pilot who lives in Washington, told DailyMail.com: ‘Back in the day, we’d just make a phone call. 

‘Currently, everything is so digital that once the system goes down, I don’t think they have enough personnel to accommodate everybody’s phone calls. They have all the current information –  it’s just a matter of getting it to the pilots. 

‘These problems are always down to budget cuts or personnel cuts.’

In 2021, under Buttigieg’s tenure as Transportation Secretary, the FAA changed the decades-long name of Notices to Airmen to Notices to Air Missions. 

Coburn tells DailyMail.com that the FAA also added ‘features’ to the system at the same time. 

President Biden told reporters the cause of the outage was not yet known but that he had ordered the Department of Transportation  to conduct a full investigation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is yet to be seen 

‘About three years ago FAA made the name change to notice to air missions and added many more responsibilities under this feature and now here we are,’ he said. 

Coburn added that while today’s crash may have been an innocent computer glitch, it sends a signal to America’s enemies of its vulnerability. 

‘We’re in such a digital age now that just about anything could crash a system. You just have to have better abilities to go back and forth – I like technology but I also like to be able to go some hardcore book material. 

‘You would think the government, of anyone, would be prepared for it. 

‘The United States has the best airspace system in the world and we still do, but this is a wake-up call in regards to when technology doesn’t work -whether it’s hacked or cracked, for whatever reason, we should be able to go back to old school systems. 

‘It looks like we’re not prepared for that, and the world is watching.

‘This is a wake-up call.’ 

Duane M. Moody, a software engineer in Florida who previously served as an Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighter for the City of Billings in Montana told DailyMail.com that there are enough checks in place for flights to continue without NOTAMs. 

‘Air traffic control has to contact pilots to tell them if there is a problem. If I had a hazard like a broken light on a runway, I would immediately tell ATC and they’d tell the pilot about the hazard directly, before it was even logged as a NOTAM. 

‘What’s more, NOTAMs are just an advisory – a pilot still has discretion to either take it into account or not. 

‘I don’t know what caused the outage but it shouldn’t have impacted travel the way that is has. 

‘Something is seriously broken here,’ he said. 

Moody added: ‘You have to wonder if it’s bureaucracy or maybe, if there was a system related to NOTAM that went down that is more critical. 

‘I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist but it may be something we don’t know. 

‘The last time air traffic was halted was 9/11 so for it to be done today because of NOTAMs? It’s ridiculous. 

‘I’d rank incompetency over a cyber attack in probability of what’s gone wrong here,’ he said. 

In a video message this afternoon, Secretary Buttigieg said the flights were grounded out of ‘an abundance of caution’.

‘Safety is always our first priority, ensuring flight safety was the reason for this morning’s ground stop,’ he said. 

It remains unclear what exactly led to the failure of the system in the first place.  

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