Was there a corrupt file to the FAA ground stoppage?

On January 11, 2023, the entire U.S. airspace was effectively brought to a standstill when the FAA issued a ground stop on all departing domestic flights due to an issue with the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system. This massive disruption affected thousands of flights and passengers across the country. Many questions have arisen regarding the root cause of the NOTAM system failure that led to this unprecedented decision by the FAA to halt air traffic. Was there a corrupt file or some kind of glitch that caused the outage? Let’s take a closer look at the timeline of events and potential factors that may have contributed to this fiasco.

Background on the NOTAM System

First, it helps to understand what exactly the NOTAM system is and why it is so critical to air travel operations. NOTAMs are notices containing essential information about potential hazards and changes that pilots need to know before taking off. This includes things like closed runways, equipment outages, and construction zones. The NOTAM system is a nationwide network of real-time hazard alerts that the FAA manages to ensure the safety of aircraft in flight. Without access to NOTAM data, pilots would be flying blind, so any disruption to this system has major implications.

The NOTAM system was due to undergo a planned modernization update in the early morning hours before the ground stop occurred. The FAA was transitioning to a new NOTAM database system known as NOTAM Search and Retrieval Services (NSRRS). This next-generation system was expected to provide improved reliability and uptime compared to the legacy NOTAM system in place.

Timeline of the Outage Event

In the days leading up to the transition, NOTAM managers across the country were instructed to purge old NOTAM data from the legacy system to prepare for the database migration to NSRRS. This purge appears to have been completed without incident.

Here is a high-level timeline of events on the morning of January 11, 2023 that led to the FAA ground stop:

  • 2 AM ET – The NSRRS system comes online as scheduled after the legacy NOTAM database is deactivated.
  • 7:19 AM ET – Pilots begin reporting issues accessing NOTAM data through NSRRS.
  • 7:30 AM ET – The FAA orders a full ground stop for all domestic departures until 9 AM ET as it investigates the NOTAM system outage.
  • 8:50 AM ET – Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announces the FAA has ordered airlines to pause all domestic departures until 9 AM ET.
  • 9 AM ET – The ground stop is extended through 11 AM ET as the FAA continues troubleshooting.
  • 10:18 AM ET – NOTAM access is restored, but the ground stop remains in place temporarily.
  • 11 AM ET – The ground stop is lifted after the FAA confirms the issue is resolved.

Within a few hours after the new NOTAM system came online, it was clear there were widespread access issues. With uncertainty about the data available to pilots, the FAA decided to stop all departures until it could be addressed. Even after access was restored, delays persisted throughout the day as the aviation system recovered.

Potential Causes of the Outage

So what exactly caused this critical system failure that brought air travel to its knees? The FAA has not released full details yet, but here are some of the leading theories based on the available evidence:

Corrupt File or Database Glitch

One prevailing theory is that some kind of corrupt file or database error during the NOTAM system transition caused the outage. If critical navigation data did not transfer over correctly to the new NSRRS system, it could have resulted in incomplete or erroneous NOTAM information that prevented access. The FAA was aware this was a risk factor and put pre-launch precautions in place, but mistakes still could have occurred.

Any data loss or corruption issues during database migration could certainly explain the widespread NOTAM access problems reported after NSRRS went live. The FAA has not confirmed this type of glitch publicly yet, but it remains a strong possible culprit.

Cyber Attack or Hacking

Given how dependent the aviation system is on digital infrastructure, there was immediate suspicion of a potential cyber attack. Several U.S. airports have suffered disruptive cyber incidents recently. If hackers infiltrated the NOTAM system during the database transition, they could have introduced malware or ransomware that corrupted files and prevented access.

However, there are no signs so far that the FAA outage was caused intentionally by malicious actors. Cyber attacks often leave detectable digital footprints or fingerprints, which authorities have not uncovered in this case based on initial reports. Still, the FAA has not conclusively ruled out cyber interference either.

Human Error

A simpler but very plausible explanation is some form of human error during the complex NOTAM system upgrade process. Whether by the FAA’s technical staff or the private contractors involved, simple mistakes in configuring the new database, servers or network could produce the technical troubles seen.

Perhaps configuration settings were not correctly transferred over from the legacy to the new system. Or needed network/security protocols may have been misconfigured that prevented proper access. Any oversights during development and testing may only have revealed themselves after NSRRS went live with the demand of real-world flight traffic.

While not as nefarious as a cyber attack, basic human errors can easily take down even the most critical IT systems. The FAA is likely thoroughly reviewing logs, code changes and access controls to check for any accidental human-caused factor.

Was Failure Preventable?

Government agencies and aviation experts will surely scrutinize what went wrong and if this massive NOTAM failure could have been prevented. Some questions that will likely be explored:

  • Were adequate disaster recovery and backup systems in place in case of an outage?
  • Should the legacy NOTAM system have been left in parallel longer as a contingency?
  • Was the full nationwide ground stop an overreaction?
  • Are heightened cyber defenses needed for aviation infrastructure?

The FAA does deserve credit for caution in instituting the ground stop swiftly when problems emerged. This prevented any possible accidents from NOTAM data lapses. But shutting down the entire U.S. airspace is extremely rare and demonstrates deep systematic concerns.

It does not appear the FAA had reliable contingency plans or workarounds ready in case the NOTAM cutover ran into trouble. And the agency did not communicate issues quickly enough to avoid shockwaves through the aviation industry. Without addressing these gaps, similar disruptions could absolutely occur again even after the specific technical causes are determined and fixed.

Impact on Travelers and Costs

The ripple effects of the FAA NOTAM failure were felt nationwide by air travelers. Here is a summary of the impacts:

Impact Statistics
Flights delayed Over 1,300 flights delayed
Flights cancelled Over 10,000 flights cancelled
Passengers affected Over 1.5 million passengers affected
Costs to airlines Estimated $600 million to $1.2 billion
Lost economic activity Estimated $200 million to $400 million

This enormous disruption is estimated to have cost airlines over $1 billion collectively from cancelled flights, gate costs, rebooking, hotels, meal vouchers and other expenses. That pain was certainly felt by their customers also. The fallout for travelers included long lines, baggage issues, missed connections, scrapped vacations and business plans and more.

The U.S. economy also took a hit in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars from decreased productivity and commerce. The White House is already pressing the FAA for compensation for those impacted. Lawsuits also may materialize attempting to recoup costs.


This FAA NOTAM outage provided a sobering reminder of how much modern life depends on the intricate technological systems for air travel. Even the most minor glitch can unleash a hurricane of delays and disruptions with high costs. While the root cause is still being investigated, early evidence points to database file corruption or configuration mistakes during a botched system upgrade.

It does not appear to be the result of hackers or cyber attack despite valid concerns about aviation system vulnerabilities. However, the lack of resilience and contingency planning by the FAA is alarming. Until firm solutions are implemented, similar meltdowns could occur in the future.

For the millions of travelers affected, this infrastructure failure will unfortunately leave scars that linger. The ripple effects across families, companies and the economy also cannot be ignored. Let’s hope all stakeholders can work together transparently to not repeat this failure and restore confidence in America’s aviation system.