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US warns aging air-traffic control code won't be fixed until 2030

NOTAM chance in hell this stuff is getting sorted soon despite outage

The aging computer system that was behind the grounding of flights across the US last month will need until 2030 to be fully upgraded, the Federal Aviation Administration said, leaving US government leaders questioning why.

On January 11 the FAA grounded all domestic aircraft for the first time since the 2001 terrorist attacks when its Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) servers, which provide critical information to pilots and air crews about flight safety or route planning, went down. The issue was traced, as it so often is, to someone deleting the wrong file, but fixing this apparently takes a lot of time.

Politicians were predictably outraged. In hearings before the Congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Tuesday, several representatives referred to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMs) as outdated, while Colin Allred (D-TX) said 2030 was an "unacceptably long time" to wait for improvements. 

But when Allred asked why the FAA had only requested $3 billion for facilities and equipment funding - the same amount as it has asked since 2009 (even when adjusting for inflation) - Dave Boulter, the FAA's acting associate administrator for aviation safety didn't have much of an answer. 

Allred pointed out that $29.4 million of the $3 billion was earmarked for NOTAMs modernization, and asked Boulter how much would be required to move the upgrade completion date up to 2025. Boulter didn't have an answer, only saying that such software fell outside his purview.

He did note that folks at the FAA "want things to go faster," but that he didn't know what sort of money would be needed to make that happen. When asked if he believed the FAA was happy with its current funding request, Boulter said he believed so, and that any changes would come directly from the FAA. 

The FAA reportedly told Bloomberg its 2030 update estimate is based on current funding, and that the agency was looking for ways to accelerate the work.

The January outage, though brief, grounded more than 11,000 flights - all of them due to take off within US airspace over a several hour period.

The FAA has reportedly implemented safeguards to prevent a similar incident from happening again, including by introducing a one-hour delay in database synchronization, and requiring two employees to be present during any NOTAMs maintenance. 

Better NOTAMs when?

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whose department oversees the FAA, said recently the government needs to pick up the pace of aviation computer system modernization, but noted the FAA was cautious about making changes to a NOTAMs system that "has been pieced together over decades but has an excellent safety record."

NOTAMs has become a mix of two interdependent systems over the years: the US NOTAM system that has existed for 30 years, and a newer Federal NOTAM system. In its 2023 budget request [PDF], the FAA said its plan is to close the 30-year old US system and merge all NOTAMs functions to the newer Federal platform. 

"The FAA began modernizing the NOTAM system in 2019 and is scheduled to discontinue the legacy U.S. NOTAM System by mid-2025. Phase two of the NOTAM system modernization is planned to be completed in 2030," the agency told The Register

Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said the FAA needs to consider what can be done with commercial products in conjunction with NOTAMs to create a better system. He recommended the addition of AI into the NOTAMs mix to sift out junk and "give us pilots good data for the missions we're flying."

Bunce also said, however, that he doesn't believe the FAA has the policy, requirements or vision to create a proper aviation ecosystem. 

"The FAA needs to be challenged as part of the reauthorization to look to the future and present a clear plan," Bunce told [PDF] the committee. ®

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