What is NOTAM, the system that caused flight delays on Wednesday?

Longtime aviation insiders could not recall a shutdown of this magnitude caused by a technological glitch.

WASHINGTON. On Wednesday morning, thousands of flights were delayed and hundreds canceled due to a malfunction in the computer system of the Federal Aviation Administration.

While details about the source of the problem are still emerging, the FAA said the failure of the NOTAM system overnight resulted in the world’s largest fleet of aircraft being shut down for several hours.

What is NOTAM?

NOTAM stands for “Notice of Air Missions” and is an online alert system used by the FAA to alert pilots to hazards along their flight path.

The NOTAM system is designed to provide pilots and air traffic controllers with important information before takeoff, such as runway hazards or adverse weather conditions.

John DeCarlo, a professor at the University of New Haven and a commercial pilot, told WTIC that the NOTAM system affects every part of a flight.

“This is a heavenly news station,” he said. “He literally tells us everything that’s going on across the country, locally and far from where we’re taking off.”

Prior to or during flight, NOTAMs may be sent to pilots warning them of problems such as a storm developing over the destination airport.

Typically, notifications are provided to pilots as part of their pre-flight planning, which allows pilots to establish a flight path that avoids any hazards.

NOTAM informational messages can vary in length, but for some long-haul flights it can be several hundred pages long.

What happens when the NOTAM system is down?

Wednesday morning was a demonstration of how important the NOTAM system is to US flights. Without the correct operation of the system, aircraft will not be able to receive important information on the fly.

“This is what we use as part of our pre-takeoff flight briefing,” DeCarlo said. “It informs us of any hazards we need to be involved with… and things that could affect safety or flight performance.”

Because of this risk, the FAA on Wednesday called for a nationwide ground stop on all air traffic until the system was repaired.

Most nationwide ground stops are associated with a particular airline, meaning others can fly unhindered. Wednesday’s ground shutdown was one of the largest since 9/11, affecting all commercial and private aircraft in the country.

What caused the problem?

It is not clear what happened to cause the NOTAM system to shut down completely. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Twitter that there were no signs of a cyberattack on FAA systems.

But she said the president had directed the Department of Transportation to conduct a full investigation into the causes of the blackout.

Shortly thereafter, President Joe Biden told reporters that he expected officials to know more about what happened “in a couple of hours.”

Are the planes already in the air?

When the FAA decided to suspend all flights, aircraft that were currently in the air were allowed to continue flying to their destination. But even these aircraft did not have access to the NOTAM system.

“You would actually be flying without the system that was put in place to let us know about air traffic control failures… cranes in the area, runways, literally everything,” DeCarlo said.

Flights that were already in the air at the time the ground stop was issued had already received their NOTAMs for their flights as part of the pre-takeoff procedure, he said.

However, these pilots were still unable to access an online portal that would inform them of any new dangers that had arisen since they began flying.

Even though the NOTAM system has moved to the digital world, the FAA can still use older systems for emergencies such as the Wednesday outage.

“This is a very old system that dates back to the 1040s,” DeCarlo said. “It’s modeled after the sailor notification system (used by ships on the ocean).”

While the online system was down, the pilots relied on the backup system that was mostly used before the advent of the internet. They called the FAA hotline, which provided the latest information on the dangers associated with their flight.

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