WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would create a task force to study a Federal Aviation Administration alert system that went down this month, grounding departing flights around the world. country.
The bill garnered overwhelming bipartisan support and passed by a vote of 424-4. It faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where it did not receive a vote after previously passing the House in 2019 and again in 2021. But system outage this month is drawing more attention to what experts say is outdated technology at the FAA
Departures across the country were halted for about 90 minutes on January 11 after the FAA’s Air Mission Alerts system went down and thousands of flights were ultimately delayed that day. The so-called NOTAM system is used to provide information to pilots about hazards such as runway closures and airspace restrictions.
Rep. Pete Stauber, a Minnesota Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said it was unacceptable that the current system has been allowed to stay in place for so long, citing complaints from pilots about how notices sent through it are difficult to interpret. He expressed his hope that after the recent interruption, the bill will finally pass through the Senate.
“We have to do this,” Stauber said. “This is a priority. We cannot have another critical failure like the one we had a couple of weeks ago.”
A divided congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in the Senate.
The legislation would direct the FAA to create a task force to consider improvements to the system. Its members would be appointed by the agency administrator and would include representatives of airlines, airports and unions, as well as experts in areas such as aviation security and cybersecurity.
The FAA declined to comment on the bill. A spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. and chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
The FAA has been in the process of modernizing the NOTAM system, which the agency’s most recent budget request described as relying on “failed old hardware.” Congress provided funding for the modernization efforts in the spending package that lawmakers approved last month to fund the government through September.
FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner said the modernization project would reach a milestone in 2025 when the legacy portion of the system is phased out. Additional improvements are scheduled through 2030, and the agency is looking at ways to speed up the timeline for that work, Lehner said.
The FAA said last week that a preliminary investigation into the outage revealed that contract personnel had “inadvertently deleted files” while working on the system. The agency added that it had taken steps to make the system “more resilient” and that no evidence of a cyberattack or malicious intent had been found.
The blackout came on the heels of another air travel disaster. Around Christmas, Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel thousands of flights after a winter storm threw its operations into chaos for days.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif. and a co-sponsor of the bill, said that weeks before the system outage, he and a colleague, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., sent a letter to the FAA requesting an update on the efforts to modernize the NOTAM system.
Mr. DeSaulnier said he had been pushing for improvements to the system since a harrowing incident at San Francisco International Airport in 2017 in which an Air Canada plane nearly landed on a taxiway instead of a nearby runway. . Four planes loaded with passengers had been waiting on the taxiway to be cleared for takeoff, and the Air Canada plane narrowly avoided a collision.
The flight crew’s “ineffective review of NOTAM information” about a runway closure at the airport was one of the factors cited in the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the incident.
“We came within 100 feet of having the worst aviation disaster in the history of the country,” Mr. DeSaulnier said, “so we need to make sure that all of these systems are as foolproof as possible at every level and that people have a great sense of trust in them.”