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.

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