The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) experienced a major computer outage on January 11, 2023 that resulted in a nationwide ground stop of all domestic departing flights. This shutdown of the air transportation system lasted for several hours and impacted thousands of flights and passengers across the United States.
On the morning of January 11, the FAA ordered all domestic departing flights to be halted starting at 7:28 AM Eastern time. This ground stop order was in effect for over 5 hours, with departing flights resuming at 9:00 AM Eastern time. During this period, all domestic departures were stopped, while international inbound flights continued to operate. Over 6,700 flights within, into, or out of the United States were delayed and nearly 1,200 were cancelled due to the FAA stoppage.
Cause of the Outage
The FAA outage was caused by a failure of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system. NOTAMs are notices containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations, but not known far enough in advance to be publicized by other means. The NOTAM system provides pilots, flight crews, and other users of airspace with critical safety information.
The FAA confirmed that the NOTAM system crashed on the evening of January 10 due to contract personnel unintentionally deleting files while working to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database. This corruption of databases supporting the NOTAM system led to a complete outage and inability to deliver updated NOTAMs on the morning of January 11, prompting the nationwide ground stop.
The NOTAM system consists of a database that contains all active NOTAMs. There are hundreds of new or updated NOTAMs issued daily that provide new information or changes that are essential for flight crews. Before every flight, pilots and operations personnel are required to check the NOTAM system database to identify any NOTAMs that may impact the routing or safety of the planned flight.
Some examples of NOTAM information include:
- Runway / taxiway closures
- Inoperable navigational aids or lighting outages
- Airport construction
- Changes to instrument approach procedures
- Temporary flight restrictions
Without an updated NOTAM database, pilots do not have the most current safety information which poses a significant risk to flight operations. Therefore, when the NOTAM system crashed, the FAA had no choice but to halt all domestic departures until functionality could be restored.
Impact and Disruptions
The FAA outage led to major disruptions in air travel across the United States. During the ground stop, all domestic departing flights were halted for over 5 hours. Takeoffs were stopped at airports like LAX, which averages around 1,200 daily departures. Major airports reported hundreds of delays and cancellations.
Passengers faced long lines and confusion as flights were delayed for hours or cancelled last minute. The ground stop also had a ripple effect, disrupting flight schedules and crew rotations for the rest of the day. Airlines had to delay or cancel flights several hours after the ground stop was lifted.
In total, over 6,700 flights within, into, or out of the U.S. were delayed by the outage according to flight tracking site FlightAware. Nearly 1,200 flights were cancelled. Tens of thousands of passengers across the country were impacted by the travel disruptions.
|Number of Flights
The FAA outage emphasizes how vulnerable air travel is to computer and technology issues. A failure in a critical aviation system can quickly cascade causing nationwide impacts. It also highlights the need for redundancy and resiliency in these systems that underpin safe air travel.
Restoration of Service
After detecting the NOTAM system failure around 7:19 AM Eastern, the FAA ordered a nationwide ground stop shortly after at 7:28 AM. All domestic departures were halted, with limited exceptions for special flights. The FAA worked to restore the NOTAM database for the next 90 minutes before departures were allowed to resume.
At 9:00 AM Eastern, the FAA lifted the ground stop order after verifying the reliability of NOTAM data. Flight departures resumed but delays and cancellations continued to mount through the day as airlines worked to recover schedules and get crews in position.
In the aftermath, the FAA is undertaking an investigation into the exact sequence of events that caused the NOTAM failure. There will also be a review of the FAA’s contingency plans, system redundancies, and decision making process during the outage. Improving resilience and preventing a recurrence of such an outage will be a top priority.
The FAA stoppage on January 11, 2023 highlighted just how reliant air travel is on computer systems running smoothly. Even brief outages of key aviation systems can quickly cascade into nationwide disruptions. In this case, a failure with the NOTAM database led to a 5+ hour halt of all domestic departures, impacting thousands of flights.
Beyond immediate travel delays, the outage showcased vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure that guides safe airspace use. It emphasizes the need for enhanced redundancy, resiliency procedures, and rapid contingency response. Swift action is required to prevent future recurrences and minimize impacts on the flying public.