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FAA Outage Highlights Fragility of the Aviation System


Tens of hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled around Christmas when frigid weather and storms made travel treacherous. However the weather was mostly high-quality on Wednesday morning when flights across the country were halted since the Federal Aviation Administration’s system to alert pilots to issues of safety went down.

The F.A.A. said on Wednesday night that it had traced the outage to a damaged database file and that there was no evidence that it was attributable to a cyberattack. The disruption was the most recent example of great problems within the aviation system and on the F.A.A., the agency accountable for safely managing all industrial air traffic that critics say has long been overworked and underfunded.

The pause on flights across the country highlighted what aviation experts say are glaring weaknesses on the agency, long considered the world’s premier aviation regulator. The F.A.A. has struggled to quickly update systems and processes, a lot of which were put in place many years ago, to maintain up with technological advancements and a pointy increase within the variety of flights and passengers.

Problems with the system used to notify pilots of hazards within the air and ground began on Tuesday night, forcing officials to reboot the system early Wednesday morning. To repair the issue, the F.A.A. ordered airlines to delay all departing flights just before 7:30 a.m. That pause was lifted at about 9 a.m., however the disruption was removed from over as airlines struggled to get back to normal throughout the day. Delays cascaded throughout the system and, by the afternoon, about 9,000 flights had been delayed and 1,300 had been canceled.

Just two weeks earlier, a whole bunch of hundreds of travelers were stranded by an operational meltdown at Southwest Airlines, the country’s largest carrier by variety of passengers. Taken together, the 2 episodes underscore the fragility of the nation’s aviation system.

The F.A.A., particularly, has long faced criticism for failing to modernize its technological systems quickly enough and never hiring enough air traffic controllers and safety specialists. Lawmakers strongly criticized the agency’s oversight of Boeing, for instance, after two of the corporate’s 737 Max planes crashed, killing 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019.

A giant a part of the issue, aviation experts said, is that Congress has not given the F.A.A. enough money to do its many roles properly, and the agency has sometimes been slow to make change even when it had enough resources. The agency’s budget was about $18.5 billion in 2022 — lower than it was in 2004 after adjusting for inflation.

“That is an agency that has been chronically and critically underfunded, not for years, but for many years,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow for aviation on the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation within the airline business.

The outage will certainly figure prominently in hearings and debates in Congress since the F.A.A.’s most up-to-date authorization, passed in 2018, expires this 12 months. That offers lawmakers a possibility to overhaul the agency, require changes and reset its funding. Many senators and representatives have expressed anger and concern about flight delays and cancellations since air travel began to get well in 2021 after collapsing in the primary 12 months of the pandemic.

“We shall be looking into what caused this outage and the way redundancy plays a task in stopping future outages,” Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in an announcement on Wednesday. “The general public needs a resilient air transportation system.”

The F.A.A. can also be with no everlasting leader, and it just isn’t clear when that may change. Last week, President Biden renominated his alternative to steer the agency, Phillip A. Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport. Mr. Washington was nominated last 12 months but didn’t receive a Senate confirmation hearing.

He has faced criticism over his limited aviation experience and his involvement in a public corruption investigation in Los Angeles, where he previously ran the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Mr. Washington has said he did nothing mistaken.

The agency has lacked a everlasting leader for the reason that end of March, when Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, stepped down about halfway through a five-year term. Since then, Billy Nolen, the F.A.A.’s top safety official, has led the agency on an interim basis.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Cantwell said her committee had not yet scheduled a hearing to think about Mr. Washington’s nomination.

Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the F.A.A. because the secretary of transportation, said on Wednesday that the federal government was investigating what caused the outage and why the agency’s systems weren’t more resilient.

“When there’s an issue with a government system, we’re going to own it, we’re going to search out it, and we’re going to repair it,” Mr. Buttigieg told reporters. “On this case, we needed to be sure that there was complete confidence concerning the safety of flight operations, which is why there was the conservative but vital step to have that pause and be sure every part was back up and running.”

Experts say that the F.A.A.’s technology has grown outdated and that the agency has long lacked the resources for ambitious overhauls that may strengthen those systems.

“I’ve been flying airplanes for 55 years, it’s been known for a very long time that the F.A.A. is commonly underfunded,” Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who safely landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday because the flight he was traveling on was delayed.

20 years ago Congress did launch a serious overhaul of the national aviation system, often known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. The multibillion-dollar project, which is meant to permit airlines to operate more flights and modernize a number of the aging technology utilized by the F.A.A., has been mired in problems and brought longer than expected.

In a 2021 report, the inspector general of the Transportation Department found that the advantages of the NextGen overhaul have fallen far in need of early projections, but said that it still held promise. The project is speculated to help the agency handle increased air traffic and develop technology to stop problems like Wednesday’s disruption.

“The expectations for these capabilities vastly exceeded the actual deliverables,” said Robert Mann, an airline industry expert and president of the aviation consultancy R.W. Mann and Company.

In recent times, the F.A.A. has fallen short in other areas, including not having enough air traffic controllers in some parts of the country at times. The airline industry and a union that represents controllers have said that staffing shortages have led to flight delays and cancellations.

Airline executives and union leaders say the air traffic control center in Jacksonville, Fla., particularly has been overwhelmed by flights. That issue has been compounded by bad weather, industrial space launches and other problems, Wealthy Santa, the president of the union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a speech last summer.

“When you fly on the East Coast, should you come near Florida, you might be affected by this facility,” he said.

The agency launched a broad air traffic controller recruiting campaign last 12 months, but the trouble is unlikely to quickly resolve any staffing problems because hiring and training controllers can take months — and getting recent hires to the fitting places can take even longer.

The agency also faced widespread criticism for failing to adequately ensure the protection of Boeing’s 737 Max jet after the 2 crashes. The F.A.A. had outsourced oversight to Boeing itself through a program where some regulatory work was delegated to company employees. That practice was allowed under federal law partly since the agency didn’t have the resources to do the work by itself.

Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, said the outage on Wednesday was particularly frustrating since it happened so soon after Southwest Airlines’ meltdown throughout the holidays.

Ms. Mace said Southwest and federal agencies should face the identical tough scrutiny and that she intended to ask the F.A.A. questions on its shortcomings and the way it planned to handle them.

“The F.A.A. is putting safety first, which is essential,” Ms. Mace said. “But in addition, at the identical time, Americans should know they will take a flight on any random week of the 12 months and know that they’ll get to their destination safely and securely.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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