FAA Outage Highlights Fragility of the Aviation System

Tens of thousands of flights are delayed or canceled over Christmas as cold weather and storms make travel dangerous. But the weather was mostly fine on Wednesday morning when flights across the country were halted as a Federal Aviation Administration’s system warning pilots of safety issues crashed.

The FAA said Wednesday night that it was monitoring the outage for a corrupt database file and there was no evidence that it was caused by a cyberattack. The disruption is the latest example of serious problems in the airline system and at the FAA, the agency responsible for safely managing all commercial flights, which critics say has long since done so. overwork and lack of funds.

The suspension of flights around the country has highlighted what aviation experts see as glaring weaknesses in the agency, which has long been considered the world’s top aviation regulator. The FAA has struggled to quickly update systems and processes, many of which were introduced decades ago, to keep up with technological advances and the sharp increase in the number of flights and passengers. guest.

Problems with the system used to notify pilots of air and ground hazards began Tuesday night, forcing officials to restart the system early Wednesday morning. To fix the problem, the FAA has ordered airlines to postpone all flights departing before 7:30 a.m. That pause was lifted around 9 a.m., but the disruption hasn’t ended as airlines struggled to get back to normal throughout the day. Delays occurred throughout the system and by the afternoon, about 9,000 flights had been delayed and 1,300 canceled.

Just two weeks earlier, hundreds of thousands of tourists were stranded by an operational crisis at Southwest Airlines, the country’s largest carrier by number of passengers. Taken together, the two episodes emphasize the fragility of the nation’s aviation system.

In particular, the FAA has long faced criticism for not modernizing its technology systems quickly enough and for not hiring enough air traffic controllers and safety experts. Lawmakers strongly criticized the agency’s oversight of Boeing, for example, after two of the company’s 737 Max planes crashed, killing 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019.

A big part of the problem, aviation experts say, is that Congress hasn’t given the FAA enough money to get much of its job right, and that the agency is sometimes slow to make changes even with enough resources. force. The agency’s budget is about $18.5 billion in 2022 — less than in 2004 after adjusting for inflation.

William J. McGee, a senior fellow in aviation at the American Economic Freedom Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation in the United States, said: “This is an agency that has been suffered severe and frequent underfunding, not for years but for decades. aviation.

The shutdown is sure to stand out in congressional hearings and debates as the FAA’s most recent authorization, passed in 2018, is due to expire this year. That gives lawmakers the opportunity to overhaul the agency, request changes and reestablish its funding. Many senators and representatives have expressed anger and concern about flight delays and cancellations since air travel begins to recover in 2021 after collapsing during the first year of the pandemic.

“We will look at what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, party member. Democrat of Washington and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. “The public needs a flexible air traffic system.”

The FAA also has no permanent leadership and it is unclear when that will change. Last week, President Biden abandoned his choice to lead the agency, said Phillip A. Washington, executive director of Denver International Airport. Mr. Washington was nominated last year but did not receive a confirmation hearing by the Senate.

He has face criticism about his limited aviation experience and his involvement in a public corruption investigation in Los Angeles, where he previously ran the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Mr. Washington has said he did nothing wrong.

The agency has been missing a permanent leader since late March, when Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive who appointed by President Donald J. Trumpstep down about mid-term 5 years. Since then, Billy Nolen, the FAA’s top safety official, has temporarily led the agency.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Cantwell said her committee had not yet scheduled a hearing to consider Mr. Washington’s nomination.

Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA as transport minister, said on Wednesday that the government was investigating what caused the outage and why the agency’s systems weren’t resilient. than.

“When there’s a problem with a government system, we’ll own it, we’ll find it and we’ll fix it,” Mr Buttigieg told reporters. “In this case, we have full confidence in the safety of our flight operations, which is why there is a cautious but important step to halt that and make sure everything is backed up and running. onion.”

Experts say the agency’s technology has become obsolete, and the FAA has long lacked the resources for ambitious overhauls to bolster those systems.

Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009, said: “I’ve been flying for 55 years, and we’ve known for a long time that the FAA is often crashed. lack of funds. a phone interview on Wednesday when the flight he was on was delayed.

Two decades ago, Congress kicked off a major overhaul of the nation’s aviation system, known as the Next Generation Air Transport System, or NextGen. The multibillion-dollar project, to allow airlines to operate more flights and modernize some of the older technology used by the FAA, has been plagued with problems and has taken longer than expected.

In report for 2021, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that the benefits of the NextGen overhaul have fallen far short of initial predictions, but says it’s still promising. The project is supposed to help the agency handle the increased air traffic and develop technology to prevent problems like Wednesday’s disruption.

“Expectations for these possibilities greatly exceed actual possibilities,” said Robert Mann, an aviation industry expert and president of aviation consulting firm RW Mann and Company.

In recent years, the FAA has failed in other areas, including not having enough air traffic controllers in some parts of the country. The airline industry and a union representing controllers have said staffing shortages have led to flight delays and cancellations.

Airline executives and union leaders said the air traffic control center in Jacksonville, Fla., was particularly overwhelmed by flights. That problem has been exacerbated by bad weather, commercial spacecraft launches and other problems, said Rich Santa, association president, National Association of Air Traffic Controllers, said in a speech last summer.

“If you fly on the East Coast, if you get close to Florida, you’re going to be impacted by this facility,” he said.

The agency launched an extensive air traffic controller recruitment campaign last year, but the effort is unlikely to resolve any staffing issues quickly because of controller recruitment and training. Staffing can take months — and recruiting new employees to the right positions can take longer.

The agency also faced widespread criticism for failing to adequately secure Boeing’s 737 Max jets following the two crashes. The FAA has hired Boeing to provide external supervision through a program in which some management work is delegated to company employees. That activity is allowed under federal law in part because the agency doesn’t have the resources to do the work on its own.

Representative Nancy Mace, Republic of South Carolina, said Wednesday’s outage was particularly upsetting because it happened so soon after Southwest Airlines’ crisis over the holidays.

Mace said Southwest and federal agencies face equal scrutiny and she plans to question the FAA about the agency’s shortcomings and how it plans to address it. they.

“The FAA puts safety first, that’s what matters,” Ms. Mace said. “But at the same time, Americans should also know that they can land a flight any random week of the year and know they will arrive at their destination safe and secure.”

Kitty Bennett contribution research.


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