U.S. Transport chief Buttigieg urges faster aviation computer upgrades

Travelers face potential delays ahead of Thanksgiving
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attends a press event ahead of expected Thanksgiving travel at O'Hare airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 21, 2022. REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Monday said the government needs to "pick up the pace" on its efforts to modernize aviation computer systems after a pilot messaging database outage forced a nationwide groundstop on Jan 11.

Buttigieg told Reuters in an interview that President Joe Biden's administration plans to seek from Congress "the resources needed to accelerate these system changes" at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He said it was important to look beyond the recent outage that snarled more than 11,000 flights.

"The broader context is aging systems and growing demand. I don't want this to be 'whack-a-mole' where we figured out one flavor of problem on one system... only to face another one later on."

Last week the FAA told lawmakers it had revoked access to a pilot messaging database by contractor personnel who unintentionally deleted files in the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) database, forcing the first nationwide groundstop since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"We're working to make sure we can accelerate the NOTAM modernization but what we really need to do is pick up the pace on FAA's wholesale system modernization -- all the way down to the backbone of how the data moves," Buttigieg said. "This is something that obviously has been underway through multiple administrations. It's not going to happen overnight."

The FAA told U.S. lawmakers in a letter first reported by Reuters that the agency has adopted new safeguards to prevent a subsequent outage, including a one-hour delay in synchronizing databases that should prevent data errors from immediately reaching the backup database.

"I'm confident that we have identified the specific chain of events that led to this specific problem" that led to the ground stop, Buttigieg said.

The NOTAM system provides critical safety notices to pilots, flight crews and other users of U.S. airspace.

The NOTAM System consists of two interdependent systems -- the legacy U.S. NOTAM System, which is 30 years old, and the newer Federal NOTAM System.

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 FAA letter said.

Buttigieg said the FAA is cautious about making huge changes to its system that has been pieced together over decades but has an excellent safety record.

There has been just one U.S. passenger airline crash fatality since February 2009.

"The question is how to make sure how you don't throw out the baby with the bath water," Buttigieg said.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio

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