The NOTAM plane debacle, explained

Days after the Southwest Airlines snafu, a computer glitch grounded all US flights on Wednesday morning.

Such an order hasn’t been issued since 9/11, per NPR.

What happened?

An FAA computer system that sends out NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions) failed.

Though separate from air traffic control systems, NOTAMs share crucial info about potential safety hazards with pilots.

  • For example: Runway closures, lights out of service, military exercises, lasers, or air shows.
  • NOTAMs date back to 1947. The name once stood for “Notice to Airmen,” but in December 2021, it changed to be more inclusive of all aviators, including drone pilots.

Aviation consultant Mike Boyd told CNN, “It’s like telling a trucker that a road is closed up ahead.” So, no NOTAMs, no flights.

What’s next?

The FAA lifted the ground stop shortly before 9am EST, after ~1.5 hours, though air travel was snarled due to the 8.2k+ delays and 1.2k+ cancellations reported by FlightAware as of Wednesday afternoon.

President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation into why the system failed. Currently, there’s no evidence of a cyberattack.

Cybersecurity experts think the culprit was likely a software update, per NBC; others told USA Today it could be outdated tech.

Meanwhile: It’s not just planes. On Monday, passengers on an Amtrak train from Washington, DC to Florida, were stuck aboard for 29+ hours due to a freight train derailment. Eventually, the conductor had to tell them to stop calling 911 as they were not being held hostage.

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