ALPA Urges Upgrade to NOTAM System Following Recent Disruption of Flights

Union Weighs in with Recommendations to Senate Commerce Committee

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer

On January 11, the FAA announced a nationwide ground stop due to a failure in the NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) system that lasted several hours, causing the cancellation of more than 1,300 flights and the delay of nearly 10,000 more. It was the first time that all flights at airports across the U.S. had been grounded since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

One month later, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing in which FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen was the only witness, and committee members questioned him about the system’s failure.

To underscore ALPA’s commitment to the safety of the skies and to ALPA members, Capt. Jason Ambrosi, the Association’s president, submitted a letter for the record recommending changes to the FAA’s NOTAM system, which provides pilots with important information for the safe conduct of flight operations.

“The recent nationwide ground stop due to issues with the NOTAM system underscores the importance of strengthening our aviation infrastructure,” said Ambrosi. “Every pilot flying the line needs a reliable and usable NOTAM system that complies with international standards. Much work is needed to improve the NOTAM system and the information it disseminates. This committee’s work to review the causes and impacts of the NOTAM system outage and the FAA’s actions to strengthen the resiliency and reliability of the system is the first step.”

The FAA reported that the outage was due to the deletion of corrupted computer files by an FAA contractor and that it’s since addressed the issue so that contractors are no longer able to delete files in the system.

“The FAA’s preliminary findings are that contract personnel unintentionally deleted files while working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database,” said Nolen. “We’ve found no evidence of a cyberattack or other malicious intent. After the incident, we implemented a synchronization delay to ensure that bad data from a database can’t affect a backup database. Additionally, we’ve implemented a new protocol that requires more than one individual to be present and engaged in oversight when work on the database occurs.”

But despite this, many pilots say that the NOTAM system has long been a source of frustration and that it’s outdated and needs to be modernized. To that end, ALPA is supporting the NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023 (S. 66) introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and cosponsored by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). H.R. 346, a companion bill introduced in the House by Reps. Pete Stauber (R-MN) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), passed in the House in late January. The legislation includes calls for a task force of experts from pilot unions, air traffic control, general aviation, business aviation, airlines, and dispatchers and other users who could provide guidance and possible solutions for addressing shortfalls in the NOTAM system.

Ambrosi noted in his statement that the way in which the system is used has changed since it was originally introduced in 1947 by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, a precursor to the FAA. In fact, NOTAMs are still issued in abbreviated code originally optimized for teletype machines. Over time, the system has become bloated with extraneous data and “permanent NOTAMs,” which makes it difficult to use and doesn’t convey crucial information in a way that’s easily accessible by pilots. He also suggested that the system is often used excessively and inappropriately as a quick fix rather than updating aeronautical charts in a timely manner, as required by regulation.

“The original intent for NOTAMs was to provide operators with information that was so new or urgent that the NOTAM was used as a temporary alert until the information could be published on charts or other aeronautical publications,” Ambrosi remarked. “However, that’s no longer the case. It’s routine for information on a NOTAM to remain in the system indefinitely.”

The NTSB has previously noted that the quality and sheer volume of NOTAMs can become a safety hazard. “Even a short flight from Washington, D.C., to Boston, for example, often contains multiple pages of NOTAMs,” commented Ambrosi, “which pilots, controllers, and dispatchers are all responsible for knowing for every flight.”

Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC) provided a stark example of just how cumbersome the system can be by introducing a document into the record during the hearing that included NOTAMs for a proposed flight back to his state.

“I printed out the NOTAMs for a flight from D.C. back to my home airport near Winston-Salem,” said Budd. “It’s a 90-page document for a flight that’s only about an hour long. If I hadn’t reviewed it closely, I might have missed the NOTAM for a runway closure in my designated alternate airport. It’s buried on page 4 somewhere between 13 other runway and taxiway NOTAMs.”

Ambrosi also suggested that one of the problems that the FAA faces in carrying out modernization projects for critical aviation infrastructure like the NOTAM system is the single-year funding that Congress often provides for work that can take many years to accomplish. “This Band-Aid approach creates enormous challenges for the FAA to keep massively complicated projects on course and bring them to completion,” he said, “especially amid continuing resolutions, government shutdowns, authorization extensions, and other disruptions.”

Ambrosi outlined a number of recommendations for the committee that ALPA believes should be incorporated into any upgrade to the NOTAM system, including

  • improved guidance and training for personnel who upload NOTAMs on appropriate use and terminology.
  • an “expiration date” that limits the length of time a NOTAM can stay in the system, requiring periodic review for purpose, validity, and revision.
  • increased use of graphical depiction of certain types of NOTAMs, including rocket ship launch airspace protection zones where the risk to airline operational safety may be reduced.
  • categorization of NOTAMs that can be prioritized and sorted or filtered depending on that particular flight or type of operation.
  • potential depiction of NOTAM information overlaid on electronic moving maps and/or electronic flight bags.

“We stand ready to support your work on these and other critical aviation issues to ensure that our national airspace system remains the gold standard for safety and efficiency,” Ambrosi concluded.

During the hearing, Nolen was grilled by committee members about the system’s failure and was asked to explain what corrective action the agency has taken. He indicated that the FAA’s efforts to modernize the system are currently under way and that most of the work should be completed by 2025. But Nolen cautioned that additional improvements would be necessary to meet standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Army veteran and former combat helicopter pilot, questioned Nolen about redundancies in the system that might mitigate the risk of future interruptions to air travel. He again emphasized the synchronization delay to protect backup files and the protocol that requires more than one individual to be present when work on the database is performed.

“As a pilot, one thing you learn is that a safety system should never be left vulnerable to a single point of failure,” said Duckworth. “Redundancy saves lives. That’s why I’m so alarmed that a single contractor could crash the NOTAM system by simply deleting files. That sounds like a single point of failure. It’s the FAA’s job to keep our airspace safe, but it’s impossible for the FAA to do this unless its systems have appropriate redundancies.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee’s chair, echoed Duckworth’s concerns and directed Nolen to report back to the committee within a week with a plan to ensure that necessary redundancies are in place to protect the system from another failure like the one in January.

“You’re saying what happened here is that somebody infected the file and basically ended up deleting something that then caused the outage to the system,” said Cantwell. “So you’re now trying to put human redundancy there so that this won’t happen again. What would be important to understand is can the FAA set up a true redundant server system that would allow for that file corruption that happened not to happen across the entire system? And that’s what we need to know the answer to.”

NOTAM Recommendations

Read the full letter from Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation with ALPA’s recommendations regarding the Notice to Air Missions system.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)