Senate committee hammers FAA chief on computer outage, safety incidents

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Senators grilled the head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday, seeking answers after a string of safety incidents and an FAA computer outage that caused the cancellation of thousands of flights have renewed concerns over the safety and reliability of air travel.

Almost one week after the Southwest holiday meltdown hearing, acting FAA head Billy Nolen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation regarding the computer outage that led the agency to issue a ground stop.

The incident halted all air traffic for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It also followed a spate of safety incidents that have garnered national headlines — and have caught the attention of the committee.

“These incidents are concerning,” commerce committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at the hearing. “They impact Americans’ confidence in our aviation system, and our aviation system infrastructure is critical to American safety and security.”

Nolen told the Senate panel in prepared remarks that the FAA implemented a set of new protocols to ensure such an incident doesn’t happen again. He also urged Congress to invest more in the FAA’s modernization efforts.

Some of these protocols include “a synchronization delay to ensure that bad data from a database cannot affect a backup database” and ensuring more than one individual is “present and engaged in oversight when work on the database occurs.”

On Jan. 11, the FAA experienced a Notice to Air Missions — the alert system pilots use  — outage due to a contractor unintentionally deleting files during an update. The outage led to the delay of thousands of flights, only two weeks after Southwest canceled almost 17,000 flights.

The NOTAM outage spurred criticisms over the FAA’s antiquated technology, some of which relies on 30-year-old infrastructure and software, according to Nolen.

Nolen also shared that the FAA is significantly ramping up its efforts to replace its outdated NOTAM system because of the outage, aiming to completely replace the system by 2025.

At the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the ranking member of the Senate commerce committee, grilled Nolen over the FAA’s inability to modernize and the outdated NOTAM system.

“The FAA ordered a full ground stop of the national airspace system for the first time since Sept. 11, which was 22 years ago,” Cruz said. “The ground stop was because America was under attack. But this time, this ground stop was the result of the federal agencies’ inability to modernize.”

Nolen said he could not guarantee that there will never be another issue with the NOTAM system following the Jan. 11 outage.

“What I can say is that we are making every effort to modernize and look at our procedures,” offered Nolen.

Nolen also addressed the recent slate of near-miss airplane incidents that have occurred during the past few months.

On Jan. 13, a Delta Air Lines plane nearly collided with an American Airlines aircraft at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

Then, at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), Southwest and FedEx planes were nearly 100 feet away from colliding as both planes tried to use the same runway for takeoff and arrival.

Cruz played a simulation of the near collision between the Southwest and FedEx planes at AUS at the hearing, emphasizing that the incident could have been fatal.

“If you were sitting on that Southwest flight, and you knew how close you came to having a plane land on top of you, killing every person on that plane, you would be horrified,” Cruz said.

In December, a United Airlines flight that departed from Maui came within 800 feet of plunging into the Pacific Ocean en route to San Francisco, which was first reported by The Air Current.

The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the near-miss incidents, and the FAA formed a team of experts to conduct a comprehensive review of airline safety, according to Reuters.

Against that broader backdrop, Nolen took the opportunity to plug the safety record of commercial aviation in the U.S., though he acknowledged that maintaining that is not a given.

“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we do not take that for granted,” Nolen shared. “Recent events remind us that we cannot become complacent and that we must continually invest in our aviation system.”