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Air travel ground to a halt Wednesday morning as FAA's computer system went down

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Commercial airline flights are now taking off again at airports across the United States. But expect significant flight delays, if you're expecting someone in, or cancellations throughout the day today as the nation's aviation system recovers from a critical system outage. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered a temporary ground stop after its system for notifying pilots of potential hazards failed overnight. FAA says the system is back online, but the failure forced airlines to cancel more than 800 flights so far, and more than 4,500 flights are delayed. Joining us to talk more about this and give us an update on the situation is NPR's David Schaper. Hi, David. What is this notification system that caused this outage?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, Dwane, it's called the NOTAM system, and it stands for Notice to Air Missions. The FAA uses this system to notify pilots and other airline operations personnel about potential hazards they might encounter.

BROWN: Right.

SCHAPER: This could be a runway closure or construction obstacles at an airport or even the presence of flocks of birds that could lead to a bird strike - anything that's abnormal that might be in the airplane's flight path from takeoff until landing and that could affect the flight. These usually are notices that are somewhat last-minute and not known far enough in advance to be communicated through other means.

FAA alerts indicate that this NOTAM system failed overnight. And while all departing flights were halted for a few hours, planes that were already in the air prior to the system outage were able to continue safely to their destinations. As you said, departures have resumed now, but it's really going to take quite a while for airport operations to get caught up again. Anyone traveling today should check with their airline early and often to see if their flight is going to be delayed or even canceled.

BROWN: Yeah, David, this is a bit of an antiquated system. Any idea what might have caused this outage? I know the FAA has kind of downplayed a cyberattack.

SCHAPER: Yeah. We don't know yet, but the FAA says it is looking into the cause. The Department of Transportation and the White House both initially said there's no indication of a cyberattack, as you said, but President Biden said this morning we really don't know what the cause is. He talked to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and ordered an investigation and asked the secretary to report back directly to him. But, you know, there is reason for concern here. Our aviation safety system is built on redundancy, so failures like this shouldn't happen.

BROWN: Yeah.

SCHAPER: But this is a major disruption of a system that is essential for flight operations - and I should say not just for commercial airline flights, but almost all aircraft, except for the military system. And it appears to be one of the most significant FAA outages in years. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees aviation and the FAA, put out a statement earlier about this outage, saying that, as the committee prepares for FAA reauthorization legislation, we will be looking into what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages because the public needs a resilient air transportation system.

BROWN: And, of course, David, this comes on the heels of that huge Southwest operational meltdown - Southwest Airlines - over the holidays. What do you think this says about the air transportation system and how fragile it is?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the incidents don't appear to be related at all. But, as I said before, there is cause for concern here. Airlines, in some cases, like Southwest, have antiquated technology, and their IT systems are critical to operations. The same is true of the FAA. And upgrading these essential systems is hugely expensive, but must be done to create a safe national air travel system.

BROWN: We'll leave it there. David Schaper, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.