January 10th Revealed the Need to Update Our Aviation Safety Technology
Technology Policy Brief #51 | By: Steve Piazza | January 21, 2023
Header photo taken from: Jeenah Moon / The New York Times
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Photo taken from: Charles Rex Arbogast / The Associated Press
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that all pilots receive NOTAMs (Notice To Airmen, or Notice to Air Missions in the United States) prior to takeoff. The purpose of these notifications is to provide pilots with information regarding obstacles they may encounter along the way.
Currently, pilots receive NOTAMs through the Federal NOTAM System (FNS), which gathers information from the source of the problem and disseminates it via text so it is available during pre-flight preparations.
Due to a recent technical issue that eventually resulted in the grounding of all commercial and private aircraft in the U.S., attention has been thrust upon aging industry technology in a communication system which has grown exponentially since it was first deployed.
On the evening of January 10, while performing regularly scheduled maintenance, an engineer mistakenly replaced a crucial file with one that was corrupt, preventing the NOTAMs from loading and disseminating.
After hours of unsuccessfully rebooting the system, all domestic flights were grounded. It wasn’t until 9:00 AM the next morning that the situation had been remedied and the flight ban lifted. According to Flightaware.com, the entire episode caused the delay of more than 11,000 flights and cancellation of another 1300.
Canada also experienced a similar technical issue which may or may not be related. But, because their system is more advanced and they have less air traffic, they did not experience such a disruption.
The FAA was quick to say that terrorism had been ruled out and called it a technical problem. But without a proper backup system that is nothing more than analog phone equipment rather than current, more reliable technology, whatever they call it should be an indication that the industry is in a crisis.
In plain terms, the present but outdated air transportation infrastructure places travelers and the general public at serious risk.
To begin with, the NOTAM system is almost 30 years old. The practice itself actually started in 1947, which was based on a Notice to Mariners developed by the US Navy way back in 1869.
Photo taken from: Seth Wening, The Associated Press
Ever since the existing system’s deployment in 1993, air traffic controllers, pilots, and other airline personnel receive NOTAMs via text messages traveling along aged teletype networks. This format, which includes the required use of presenting information in all caps, makes messages very difficult to read for pilots already faced with overwhelming, but crucial pre-flight protocols.
An example of their cumbersome nature is this text from a 235 word NOTAM message regarding airspace around San Angelo, Texas: …
SPECIAL SECURITY INSTRUCTIONS, ALL ACFT FLT OPS ARE PROHIBITED: WI AN AREA DEFINED AS 5NM RADIUS OF 311647N1002234W (SJT135007.0) 3500FT MSL-FL180 EFFECTIVE 2301152100 UTC (1500 LOCAL 01/15/23)….
Photo taken from: The Federal Aviation Association
The extreme volume of messages also presents difficulties. The number of messages have tripled in the last 10 years and will soon surpass 1 million per year. Sometimes obstacles are easily overlooked because of the amount of information transmitted. Some users have even said they have at times ignored them because they’re too unwieldy.
Minor steps to make information easier to access and read have been taken. NOTAM communications are now available in digital format, so if flight personnel feel the need to research information on flying conditions, they can use web based applications like FNS NOTAM Search. NOTAM Search is a typical webpage database function where the end user enters a query such as date and location information to get access to the notices.
Unfortunately, out of synch steps like these are not enough, and solutions for the needed overhaul of the NOTAM system have been proposed. These include automated notifications written in clear sentences and updated graphical interfaces that even show airport diagrams and taxi lanes. Yet, at last discussion, such improvements could take up to six years to implement.
Transportation is not the only area of the government that has been in need of technology upgrades. The Technology Modernization Fund established in 2017 has helped 15 federal agencies with over $400 million in IT upgrades.
But other agencies, such as the Social Security administration and the Small Business Administration, like Transportation are still in dire need.
The recent events of January 10-11 may speed things along for NOTAMs in particular. But as long as there are partisan Congressional stalemates, such as the delayed vote on President Biden’s pick as FAA Director, such upgrades may just have to remain on the ground.
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The International Civil Aviation Organization is an agency of the United Nations that advocates for civil aviation system safety around the world. Amongst other things, a search also provides access to NOTAMs: https://www.icao.int/Pages/default.aspx