What’s Really Wrong With The FAA’s NOTAM System That Caused Air Travel Chaos Last Week?

Thousands of flights were cancelled last week when the FAA’s NOTAM system for alerting pilots to potential safety issues failed as a result of a damaged database file. This was a major screwup at the FAA, but now the calls are for more money for the FAA and little focus is paid to improving the underlying processes.

Transportation researcher Robert Poole highlights the problems with the FAA’s NOTAM system itself.

The major problem with NOTAMs is information overload. At any given time, FAA NOTAMs may consist of 30-to-100 pages of all-caps text, with no prioritization of what might be a serious hazard and nothing highlighted for a particular air route (e.g., Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Miami International).

According to an aviation group called OpsGroup, the number of NOTAMs reached 500,000 in 2006 but doubled to one million NOTAMs seven years later, as FAA and other agencies continued to add notifications of things like construction cranes that are far from runways and birds congregating at or near airports. The mindset seems to be, ‘We’d better include it, in case something bad happens, and we get blamed.’

…[As one pilot explains,] the all-caps information for each airport is a mish-mash of everything someone could think of that might be relevant, with hazard locations indicated by latitude and longitude, loads of cryptic abbreviations, and no emphasis on what might actually be important. “Hence, flight crews can spend a long time sifting through irrelevant trivia about there being a 150-foot crane a mile from the airport, or the MDA [Minimum Descent Altitude] for a particular [visual] approach on an ILS runway being adjusted from 420 ft. to 425 ft.”

Secretary Buttigieg declares the nationwide ground stop that was put in place when the system failed was necessary for safety. It was the first nationwide ground stop since 9/11. But I’m not so sure. Initially airlines were left to make the decision for themselves, before the FAA acted, and planes that were already in the air were permitted to fly to their destinations. It seems that travel with the NOTAM system down would have been manageable using the previous day’s notices (which would have been in place for quite some time already) and simply being separately given the day’s updates that were, in fact, important.

There’s been zero discussion of updating the NOTAM system to focus on giving pilots (and airline ops centers) the right information, in the right form, at the right time – just how to keep the existing system from dumping again.

As I’ve written for years, just as with the TSA, the FAA acts both as regulator and service provider. In other words, they regulate themselves. That’s never a best practice. Poole has argued that you don’t need to follow the Canadian model (spinning off air traffic control into a non-profit), you’d get much of the benefit reforming air traffic control just by moving it into its own separate government agency “located outside Washington, DC, regulated at arm’s length by FAA (as it regulates airports, airlines, etc.).”

United CEO Scott Kirby has been complaining about an insufficient budget for air traffic control and that, too, should be remedied. I’ve suggested the simple solution is user fees, rather than taxes, and Poole concurs, pointing out that this would be better for making long-term technology investments as well,

[It would be] similar to airports charging landing fees, rents, etc. This would be analogous to other federal entities that provide services to customers, such as the huge electric utility Tennessee Valley Authority. With its own revenue stream, the new ATO could issue long-term revenue bonds, like airports and electric utilities do, so that large capital modernizations could be financed up-front, rather than being paid for out of annual cash flow, which leads to very long periods to get improvements implemented systemwide.

As long as air traffic control is funded by annual congressional appropriation it’s not going to be able to make real technology investments, and the agency is simply bad at doing so in any case. There needs to be both a funding change and a culture change in order to improve reliability and airspace throughput. Kirby doesn’t want to pay for it, he wants taxpayers to pay for it, but funding is only half of the equation in any case.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Day old information might be OK, but would miss someone like the ILS at a divert airport that broke the previous day. If a passenger has a medical emergency and they have to divert, but the divert airport is socked in, they won’t know ahead of time. The chances of having a problem is low, but it removes one layer of swiss cheese. That said, there is still NOTAM overload.

    While the airlines works love a user fee for using airspace, they would also love to push more of those costs to general aviation. That will make the pilot shortage worse, by making it more expensive to build the experience to get to the regionals.

  2. There’s quite a bit of credible evidence out there that the NOTAM Outage was actually a cyberattack for ransom, which clearly explains the 20 % run-up in Bitcoin that same week. Even Tucker Carlson on Fox News addressed it (although you can read more detail about it on Reddit and elsewhere). Here’s the Tucker Carlson Segment: https://www.foxnews.com/video/6318780618112

  3. it’s not any different than the way LUV approached its IT – it works most of the time so why spend the money on an overhaul.
    Pilots clearly know how to deal w/ the huge volume of Notams – some of which can be meaningless while others are important.

    And given that you, Gary, repeatedly argued for privatized ATC but have had to build a viable business case for why the FAA doesn’t deliver the best (not perfect but still the best) service at the lowest cost for the volume of air traffic that the US handles, your arguments have to be viewed wiht that bias.

    We all get to have biases – they just have to be disclosed and the conclusions understand.

  4. @Tim Dunn – those are certainly words and you wrote them I will give you that. There is little question that NavCanada outperforms the FAA ATO, that they are better at doing tech (funding and culture), and that the FAA lags across the board – when will they drop ALL CAPS NOTAMs like the rest of the world? 😀

    In any case I am not talking about spinning off the ATO into a non-profit here (privatization is such a misleading term but by the way NATCA has favored it). I do believe – as do world aviation bodies – that splitting service provision from oversight is a best practice in safety.

  5. The problem with a fee structure is that it would soon destroy much of general aviation. Piloting a smaller or private aircraft is expensive enough already, and adding endless fees (and who will pay for that record keeping and collection?) would make it far less affordable. This would be particularly true for the instrument flying part of the system. I can see pilots skirting under bad conditions (“scud running”) to avoid being filing IFR, and the accident rates would soon increase. Student practice, which involves a lot of touch and goes at airports, would likely dry up anywhere around cities, and so would the schools and repair operations. This industry brings in a lot of jobs, provides plenty of transportation convenience, and trains the next generation of airline pilots plus to some extent those whose goal is to fly for the military. Hobbling it would not be in the country’s best interests.

  6. Dr. Richard is right – privatized ATC would significantly harm general aviation.
    Gary is also right in his 2nd reply. crypto is getting the screws tightened around the world. Tucker Carlson can provide some interesting insights but the FAA itself said their failure because a contractor screwed up a file.
    The best IT systems in the world can come crashing down because of human error.
    Trying to turn a human failure into a narrative to support a million other theories is nothing short of bias.
    I do agree that best practice is to separate service from regulation – but there are plenty of other government entities that do both – and they provide their service at higher cost than the FAA.

  7. “A bureaucratic organization is an organization that cannot correct its behavior by learning from its errors.” Michel Crozier

  8. NOTAM was first implemented in the 1940’s, I hear. This can explain all caps. It’ s probably still usint old black and green CRT’s for screens. Pathetic but not surprising, it’s “good enough for government work”.

  9. TexasTJ: sadly, with all the lies tucker Carlson has told he simply has no credibility…..

  10. Our magnificent federal government already fixed the only problem they see with the NOTAM system when they changed the name from notices to Air Men to notices to Air Missions. Why can’t everyone get with the program that everything is just fine with the system now and leave them alone.

    You make think I’m being facetious (and maybe I am), but their is no getting around the fact that this name change is what our federal government prioritized above all else. Fixing the system for real is hard work and takes time, while fixing the name is easy and garners a lot of woke brownie points for everyone involved.

  11. Jorge
    IIRC, Tucker is the most watched cable news personality so whatever he does, he draws a big crowd.
    The feds do a good job of covering stuff up but this event was due to simple hunan incompetence

  12. @Gary,

    Lived and worked overseas as a pilot flying all over the world. As I recall everything was all caps over there too, doesn’t bother me one bit. My main complaint with the system are NOTAMS not removed in a timely fashion and NOTAMS so far in advance that I don’t care about. Decoding them is just part of the job, it takes no more than 2-3 minutes to peruse and highlight the 5% that might pertain to me. It’s all part of the job (and an easy yet sometimes monotonous part), your pilots should be able to put in that effort without complaining or getting confused with the amount we get paid these days. As a previous poster said the FAA’s focus as of late has been gender neutral nomenclature changes… that is the priority sadly. The failing in this instance was lack of leadership that morning, everything in the system as of the prior evening was still available and valid, only changes submitted after that were not available and at towered airports (if they had anything new) could have been disseminated over the ATIS, ATC or some other means…. But that would require someone making a decision and thinking outside the box. For smaller GA airports that wouldn’t have worked granted but we didn’t need a nationwide ground stop.

  13. NOTAMs are all caps dating back to the teletype days. Those machines could only print in all caps. Teletypes were still being used fifty years ago when I was learning to fly.

    Regarding other posts: I would not trust one word out of the mouth of Tucker Carlson.

  14. Worldwide, the NOTAM systems are out of date with tons of useless information. Several east European nations still provide alerts related to potential Y2K power failures. ICAO launched a global initiative in 2021 to have all countries upgrade and standardize messages, but lack of funding in most countries including the US are making this a challenge.

    Even if funding is approved, it will probably take a couple of years to develop, test and deploy a new system for the FAA.

  15. @ Gary,

    As I’ve stated, in most of the rest of the world they are indeed all caps, at least with LIDO flight planning. What is this obsession with all caps or not….that’s not the issue. I have my last OFP from my time at Emirates 5 yrs ago, whole notam section is all caps.

  16. @ Gary

    Here is a thorough OFP review, Notam package starts at 20:00….. you will see nothing but all caps.

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