The recent failure of the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, which resulted in the cancellation of thousands of flights on January 10 and 11, underscores the need for Congress to reorient U.S. Department of Transportation funding from climate change and social justice issues to information technology (IT) modernization.
The NOTAM system is used to inform pilots of adverse conditions which prevent automated landings at their destinations. Pilots are required to read these notices before they take off in order to see if problems exist at final destinations or on the way.
For instance, a search in the FAA archives for NOTAMs for Washington Dulles Airport on Jan. 1, 2023, revealed about 70 notices. This search engine is public, although members of the public would likely not be able to understand the abbreviations and interpret the results.
Travelers throughout the globe should be grateful that the FAA takes safety seriously and has a no-tolerance policy for potential accidents. That is one reason that U.S. airspace is the safest in the world and that travelers have confidence to fly for business and pleasure.
The NOTAM system has a backup which has been used successfully in the past. However, on January 11 both the main system and the backup failed. Both are older systems that are not compatible with newer technology. The process to update NOTAM began in 2021, but it is not expected to be completed before 2024.
Wednesday’s tech failure kept air passengers and cargo on the ground and came at huge cost to consumers, airlines and the American economy. Planes don’t fly on diversity, equity and inclusion or on green dreams. Modern equipment requires modern backup systems, and that requires investment in new technology.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has a budget of $23 billion, but it receives funds for particular categories of expenditures and does not have the ability to re-appropriate funds without congressional permission. For example, tens of billions of dollars were appropriated by Congress for public transit systems since the pandemic, but the department cannot take even part of these funds and use them for air travel IT modernization.
In addition to updated NOTAM equipment, the FAA needs funds to update standards for radar altimeters (also known as radio altimeters), devices that inform pilots how far they are above the ground. Radar altimeters are tied into planes’ navigation systems, and some newer altimeters control more internal aviation systems than do older altimeters. The rollout of new 5G transmitters by wireless companies led the FAA to issue hundreds of NOTAMs and threaten to cancel flights due to potential interference between radar altimeters and 5G transmissions.
Equipment to ensure the safety of the nation’s commercial fleet that operates at major airports should be installed by July 2023, according to the FAA. However, smaller planes and helicopters that are used for medivac purposes may encounter difficulties if they are near 5G transmitters.
The current Transportation Department budget sets aside millions for FAA’s workforce diversity, zero emission or battery-powered ferries, battery-electric buses, and charging for battery-electric drayage trucks. Its Justice40 Initiative projects are targeted at “rural, suburban, tribal, and urban communities facing barriers to affordable, equitable, reliable, and safe transportation.” Until planes can fly regularly and safely, these projects should be put on the back burner.
Air safety is vital for people and the economy. Congress should ask itself what the cost was of the delay on Wednesday, because the answer would indicate that an investment in air safety is cheaper than delaying passenger and cargo flights for a lack of modern technology. Air traffic makes the economy more efficient and productive, but keeping planes on the ground does the reverse.
Congress should be more focused on real investments in IT for air travel and cargo, rather than on political talking points. That will keep planes in the air and the economy growing.