As Congressional hearings are underway regarding the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged the government to “pick up the pace” when it comes to modernizing the FAA’s computer systems.
Buttigieg’s remarks come weeks after the January 11 nationwide groundstop—the first since 9/11—that affected 11,000 flights across the country. Due to a mishap made by a contractor performing routine maintenance, the FAA’s notice to air missions (NOTAM) system crashed and became inoperative as crews could not access vital flight data such as runway use, airport closures, weather, or restricted airspace.
The incident prompted the U.S. House to pass legislation known as the NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023, which establishes a task force made up of pilots, airline executives, union officials, air traffic controllers, and other computer system experts to review and reform the current system.
Speaking to Reuters, Buttigieg said, “We’re working to make sure we can accelerate the NOTAM modernization but what we really need to do is pick up the pace on FAA’s wholesale system modernization—all the way down to the backbone of how the data moves. This is something that obviously has been underway through multiple administrations. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
According to the FAA, the legacy NOTAM system will be discontinued in 2025, while phase two of the NOTAM system modernization is expected to be completed by 2030.
While the NOTAM system outage was the most prominent mishap in decades, the transportation sector under Buttigieg’s tenure, has faced plenty of other challenges including mass flight cancellations and global supply chain issues. What’s more, the FAA lacks key leadership as the agency still doesn’t have an administrator nearly 7 months after President Biden nominated Phil Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport to head the agency.
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), was critical of the FAA following the NOTAM mishap, noting the system breakdown “highlights a huge vulnerability in our air transportation system.” Graves added: “This incident also underscores the number of empty desks and vacant offices at the FAA. Centuries of combined experience has gone out the door in the past several years and far too few of these positions have been filled. The FAA does not run on autopilot—it needs skilled, dedicated and permanent leadership in positions across the agency, starting with the administrator’s office,” Graves said.
Buttigieg stated that the administration will seek funding to improve air travel systems beyond just the NOTAM system. “The broader context is aging systems and growing demand,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t want this to be ‘whack-a-mole’ where we figured out one flavor of problem on one system … only to face another one later on,” he told Reuters.
On February 7, the House Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on aviation safety issues where the NOTAM incident is likely to be addressed.