Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said his agency is “pivoting” to understand the causes of a system issue that temporarily halted all U.S. domestic flights on Wednesday.
“There was a systems issue overnight that led to a ground stop because of the way safety information was moving through the system,” he said at the U.S. Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “We are now pivoting to understanding the causes of the issue … Every step of the way, safety is going to be our north star.”
The issue affected the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, which alerts pilots to safety issues and hazards along their routes. Buttigieg said a backup system began operating on Tuesday and, when the main system was restarted, there were “issues” communicating safety notices to pilots. That prompted the decision to fully reboot the NOTAM system around 5 a.m. EST but, when this process was not fully complete around 7 a.m. EST, the ground stop was issued halting all domestic flights from taking off. That stop was lifted by 9 a.m. EST.
Data from flight tracking website FlightAware showed 8,357 flight delays and 1,231 cancellations in and to the U.S. as of 2:50 p.m. EST on Wednesday. The day before, only 5,966 U.S. flights were delayed and 207 cancelled.
The national ground stop came less than two weeks after weather and scheduling systems were blamed for a major meltdown at Southwest Airlines. The carrier, which is one of the largest domestic U.S. airlines, cancelled more than 16,700 flights over Christmas and New Years, which resulted in a $725-825 million hit to its pre-tax income in the fourth quarter.
Buttigieg has been critical of Southwest for the meltdown and subsequent response, saying that the DOT will hold the airline “accountable” for its actions.
“When there’s a problem with a government system, we’re going to own it, we’re going to find it, and we’re going to fix it,” Buttigieg said when asked if he would take responsibility for the systems issue Wednesday. “My top priority right now … is to understand the root cause, understand how it could have led to this level of disruption, and understand how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The FAA’s air traffic control technology is known to be outdated. Agency administrators and legislators on Capitol Hill have repeatedly pushed for funding of the agency’s proposed NextGen upgrades to air traffic control but, as yet, most of the program remains pending until further funding from Congress.
The FAA will seek its next five-year budget reauthorization later this year. The process is notoriously fraught and subject to the political whims of Congress.
The NOTAM system outage “gives us a really important data point, at a really important moment, to understand what we’re going to need moving forward,” Buttigieg said citing the upcoming FAA funding reauthorization.