On January 11, 2023, a major computer outage occurred at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), causing widespread flight delays and cancellations across the United States. The FAA attributed the outage to a “damaged database file” and stated that there was no evidence of a cyberattack. However, many questions remain about what exactly caused the outage, how it could have been prevented, and who was responsible for maintaining the computer system that failed. Identifying the contractor or contractors involved in the FAA’s air traffic control technology is key to understanding where accountability lies for the massive disruption to air travel.
What Happened in the FAA Computer Outage?
At approximately 6:30 am Eastern time on January 11, the FAA ordered all U.S. flights to delay departures until at least 9 am. This initial ground stop order affected thousands of flights and passengers across the country. As the morning went on, thousands more flights were cancelled or delayed as the outage continued to affect FAA systems.
According to the FAA, the outage was caused by database corruption that occurred during regular maintenance to the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system. NOTAMs provide essential safety information to flight crews about potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the flight. The FAA could not access important NOTAM data due to the database issue, preventing timely distribution of new NOTAMs and leading to the nationwide ground stop.
By mid-afternoon on January 11, the FAA was able to begin restoring the NOTAM system and start lifting the ground stop order. However, flight disruptions continued to ripple across the country, with around 1,230 total flight cancellations and over 9,000 delays by the end of the day.
Importance of the NOTAM System
NOTAMs contain vital flight information about potential hazards, changes to airport facilities and navigation aids, construction, and other issues that pilots need to know before takeoff. NOTAMs alert crews to closed runways, disabled radio signals, temporary obstacles near airports, or even emergency security issues. Without access to up-to-date NOTAM data, flight crews cannot get a full picture of conditions at departure, en route, and arrival airports.
The FAA specifies that pilots must review NOTAMs before every flight. The system provides safety warnings that help pilots make informed decisions and plan contingency options if needed. With the NOTAM system down, flight planning was severely hindered during the outage. The lack of NOTAM information introduced an unacceptable level of uncertainty about flight safety.
Previous FAA Outages
While a failure of this magnitude is rare, the FAA has suffered other significant outages in recent years:
– September 2020: A 4-hour computer issue caused hundreds of flight cancellations and delays, stemming from problems with the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system used to guide planes.
– August 2015: Hardware failure led to a 5-hour outage of various FAA systems needed for flight planning and airport operations. Over 1,900 flights were cancelled.
– May 2014: ERAM software glitches caused hundreds of delays/cancellations at hub airports over a weeklong period.
– September 2013: Key communications system failed due to local router outage, leading to nearly 1,500 flight delays.
– May 2013: ERAM software problem resulted in flight delays rippling across the country over a couple days.
While each incident varies, these outages reveal the FAA’s ongoing struggle to maintain the antiquated computer systems that underpin air traffic control. The agency has attempted to upgrade technology infrastructure through programs like ERAM, but glitches persist.
ERAM: The FAA’s Air Traffic Control backbone
The En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system provides the core automation used by air traffic controllers to track and manage aircraft flying at higher altitudes, away from airport airspace. ERAM represents one of the FAA’s largest technology investments ever, costing $2.1 billion over its first 16 years of development.
The custom-built software system replaced the old Host Computer System in March 2015 to become the backbone of air traffic control across the 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers in the U.S. ERAM performs flight data processing, detects conflicts between aircraft, provides radar data, and generates safety alerts.
However, the complex system has been plagued by software glitches throughout its rollout, forcing the FAA to delay full deployment by several years. Problems have ranged from radar tracking errors to faulty messages between ERAM and controllers. These kinds of issues have been implicated in multiple FAA outages causing flight delays.
Calls for Investigation into Latest Outage
In the wake of the major flight disruptions on January 11, 2023, lawmakers and aviation groups immediately began calling for an investigation into the NOTAM system failure.
Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation stated that “We need to know exactly what caused this outage and what steps are needed to prevent future outages from wreaking havoc on holiday travel.” Other senators also voiced urgent demands for a full accounting of the FAA’s mistakes and overdue technology upgrades.
Travel industry organizations like Airlines for America requested a timely postmortem analysis from the FAA to determine root causes. Pilot unions stressed the need for infrastructure resilience and contingency planning.
The disruption highlighted concerns about the agency’s slow pace of modernization. Initial estimates suggest the outage cost airlines over $400 million in lost revenue. With growing airline passenger volume, stakeholders want assurances that safety-critical FAA systems will remain available.
FAA Tech Infrastructure Overhaul Long Overdue
Well before this latest outage, audits and investigations of the FAA repeatedly found shortcomings in the agency’s technology infrastructure and need for upgrades.
In 2021, the Office of the Inspector General reported several air traffic control systems use antiquated languages like Jovial and assembly code dating back 50 years, causing maintenance challenges. The FAA aims to transition these legacy systems to more sustainable software languages, but progress has stalled.
A 2022 watchdog report from the Government Accountability Office also outlined cybersecurity risks from the FAA running outdated systems that are harder to patch. Auditors posit potential vulnerabilities could be exploited to interfere with FAA operations.
Since 2006, the FAA has tried streamlining its air traffic management systems under the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program. But continued budget uncertainties and delays have drawn criticism over the billion-dollar initiative’s slow speed of delivery. Only 74% of the planned upgrades were complete as of 2022.
Role of Federal Contractors
To help develop and maintain the FAA’s intricate aviation technology infrastructure, the agency relies extensively on contractors and subcontractors from private industry. Major U.S. federal contractors play vital roles in building, installing, and updating critical FAA systems like ERAM.
For example, computing giant IBM served as the lead contractor for developing the initial ERAM system, securing a $1.8 billion contract in 2002. However, when ERAM struggled with software problems that delayed full deployment, IBM paid millions in penalties back to the FAA.
Other contractors now maintain and refine ERAM. FAA budget documents show Leidos and Collins Aerospace received contracts in 2022 worth $60 million and $80 million respectively for ERAM sustainment. Collins Aerospace also supports the NOTAM system infrastructure.
Computer Sciences Corporation developed foundational aspects of the NOTAM system, securing contracts in the 1990s worth over $100 million. Since being acquired by DXC Technology, this firm continues integrating updated NOTAM capabilities.
These are just a few of the many examples of private contractors that have partnered with and profited from the FAA for decades. Clarifying their exact role in the latest outage is an important aspect of any investigation.
Identifying Responsible Contractors
Pinning down which contractors were specifically accountable for the systems that failed on January 11, 2023 will be a key question for ongoing reviews by the FAA, Department of Transportation, and Congress. Based on current information, a few contractors stand out:
– Leidos – Holds an expansive Engineering, Maintenance, & Operational Support (EMOS) contract for maintaining ERAM at En Route centers. Work includes fixing defects and enhancing software. Any ERAM malfunction would likely implicate Leidos.
– Collins Aerospace – Responsible for sustaining Infrastructure Services Group equipment that supports the NOTAM system. Failed hardware could have impacted NOTAM data delivery.
– DXC Technology – Took over legacy Computer Sciences Corporation’s role developing foundational NOTAM capabilities. DXC’s performance maintaining NOTAM software is now in question.
– IBM – Initial ERAM contractor for the FAA but no longer sustains the system. However, any original design flaws not rectified could still be relevant.
The Office of the Inspector General, Government Accountability Office, and Congressional committees will need to dig into contractual obligations and work performed by these and other FAA contractors. Faulty workmanship or lack of oversight may emerge.
Preventing Future Outages
Until investigations pin down the exact failure points that caused the January 11 outage, it is difficult to prescribe specific solutions. However, aviation experts emphasize that much more intensive efforts and investment are required to modernize America’s air traffic control infrastructure.
The aviation system faces unrelenting growth in demand. Total U.S. airline passengers jumped 58% over the past decade, from 730 million in 2013 to over 1.1 billion in 2022. But current FAA computers, software, and networks are simply not scaling. Preventing future outages will require:
– Major increases in R&D funding to upgrade outdated platforms and applications. This includes transitioning from legacy software languages like Jovial.
– A focus on resilience, redundancy, and fail-over systems to minimize points of failure.
– Rigorous testing and simulation regimens to wring out problems prior to deploying technology revamps.
– Tight collaboration between FAA systems engineers and private contractors to meet aviation growth projections.
– Clear lines of accountability and penalties for contractors who deliver deficient products or services.
In recent years, the FAA has struggled to secure steady funding streams necessary for large-scale, multi-year modernization initiatives. But aviation system health demands major reinvestment in FAA infrastructure.
The January 2023 FAA computer failure provides an alarming warning about America’s high-stakes dependency on technology infrastructure in desperate need of upgrades. While the investigation into the specific outage continues, broader lessons highlight the risks from outdated and overloaded air traffic control systems.
Accelerated efforts to modernize FAA computers, software, and networks are now imperative. This will require major funding commitments and hands-on engagement between agency technical staff and private contractors. Until sweeping aviation infrastructure renewal becomes a national priority, crippling system outages remain a real threat.