Earlier this month, on the morning of January 11th, a computer glitch within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) resulted in all domestic flights in the United States being temporarily grounded. The issue was related to the Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) system, which is used to notify pilots about hazards on their flight path. 

It is believed that the NOTAM system effectively went down for a time, which meant pilots could not receive information about any potential hazards. As a result, the FAA had no choice but to ensure that as many possible flights remained on the ground. 

This resulted in severe delays, and even cancellations across the country, with many passengers left stranded and airlines forced to offer compensation to those impacted. Although the FAA managed to get the system back up and running relatively quickly, the backlog of flights in gates up and down the country meant delays continued for a couple of days. 

In total, 11,000 flights were delayed due to the issue, and 1,300 were canceled on January 11th alone. It was the first time since the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001, that all flights in the USA had been instructed to stay grounded, which understandably caused panic across the nation.

As soon as it was announced that flights had been grounded, speculation began almost immediately about a potential cyber attack on the FAA and the United States of America. President, Joe Biden, ordered an immediate investigation into the incident, and the findings of that investigation have now been revealed. 

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The Blame Lies With a Contractor 

Officials have revealed that the cause of the issue was a contractor who deleted crucial files on the server used by pilots. The FAA has said that the person responsible didn’t do it intentionally, but lawmakers are still looking into it. 

The FAA said that the contracted employee was working on synchronizing two databases when they accidentally deleted some crucial files. For now, this person’s identity is being kept private. A statement released by the FAA read:

“The agency has found no evidence of a cyber-attack or malicious intent. The FAA continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the outage. 

The FAA made the necessary repairs and has taken steps to make the NOTAM system more resilient. The agency is acting quickly to adopt any other lessons learned in our efforts to ensure the continuing robustness of the nation’s air traffic control system.”

The explanation from the FAA follows from their previous statement, which said that a “damaged database file caused the outage.” Last week, a group of Lawmakers wrote to the FAA to tell them that the outage was “completely unacceptable,” and it is unlikely that the explanation released by the FAA is likely to appease them.

Related: Two Planes Nearly Collide at JFK Airport

Where Do We Go From Here?

The FAA acting Administrator, Billy Nolen, could be in for a rough afternoon as he prepares to hold a virtual briefing with lawmakers to discuss their concerns further. While the FAA continues to investigate the problem, it is unlikely that anything concrete will come from the meeting, but Nolen will do well to keep them satisfied for the time being. 

From there, the FAA will continue its investigation into the issue in private. It is expected that they will have to announce any new measures they plan to put in place to prevent the issue from re-occurring. 

Many people will argue that it’s alarming that a contractor could so easily delete files of such importance. It’s fair to say that the FAA has a whole lot of work to do to regain the trust of American travelers after this significant mishap. 

Andrew Delaney
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