Cantwell presses FAA for NOTAM redundancy plan
The Commerce Committee chairwoman wants more details on how the FAA plans to manage a key database that suffered a nationwide outage last month.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pressed the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration for a plan to make sure working backups are available in the event of an outage of the NOTAM system that caused air traffic to grind to a halt nationwide last month.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Cantwell drilled in on the fact that the failure of the primary database that sends essential airspace information to flight personnel also took out backups meant to operate in the event of an outage.
FAA attributed the failure of the Notice to Air Missions system to a contractor errantly deleting files while working on synchronization issues between the main and backup databases. Acting Administrator Billy Nolen told the committee that the agency had ordered more supervision of database updates to prevent a single user from introducing errors into the systems. Additionally, Nolen said that the agency had introduced a one-hour synchronization delay between the main and backup databases, to catch errors before they get a chance to migrate to the backup.
Nolen also disclosed under questioning that the database administrators directly involved in the deletions that led to the NOTAM outage no longer have access to FAA systems while an internal investigation into the events proceeds.
Cantwell and other lawmakers on the panel are looking to the aviation agency for a technical fix.
"The structure of the architecture is not favorable to true redundancy," Cantwell said. "In this case, the backup didn't work either because it was affected by the same deletion," she added. "You don't have to answer all of it right here, but I need an answer on this issue of redundancy to the system."
Nolen testified that the FAA is engaged in a vast modernization effort covering thousands of systems that collectively provide oversight of the National Airspace. Even the NOTAM system is divided into two separate systems – a legacy system used by private carriers in Alaska, the Department of Defense and international airlines, and a federal system that covers most domestic carriers and is used on about 80% of flights in the NAS. The migration of the legacy system users into the federal system is scheduled to be completed in fiscal year 2025 – and Nolen said the agency is on track to hit that target.
Cantwell said she wanted an answer within a week about the NOTAM system including a separate backup that would not be subject to errors introduced in the main system.
The FAA's current authorization expires on Sept. 30, so the agency is looking to the committee for a new authorization bill this year. Members on the committee indicated in their exchanges with Nolen that details and timelines for ongoing modernization efforts will be part of the legislation.