Not far removed from the holiday chaos of Southwest Airlines cancelling more than 16,700 flights which reportedly could cost the airline nearly $1B, a different kind of chaos ensued Wednesday morning as the FAA grounded flights after the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system crashed. The FAA advisory noted:
“THE UNITED STATES NOTAM SYSTEM FAILED AT 2028Z. SINCE THEN NO NEW NOTAMS OR AMENDMENTS HAVE BEEN PROCESSED. TECHNICIANS ARE CURRENTLY WORKING TO RESTORE THE SYSTEM AND THERE IS NO ESTIMATE FOR RESTORATION OF SERVICE AT THIS TIME.”
Why would the crash of the NOTAM system ground flights?
Not only is consulting NOTAMs before a flight necessary and prudent, it’s a requirement of § 91.103 (Preflight action) for each PIC to “become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” Thankfully, shortly before 9am eastern the same day, the FAA issued a statement indicating that normal operations were resuming gradually and the cause would be investigated. Initially, it appears the crash was not a result of an attack or sabotage.
Even with the NOTAM system restored, providers were still processing a backlog of NOTAMs Wednesday and advising users to check the FAA NOTAM site for the most up-to-date information. And while the stoppage was relatively short, the effects will linger for days and it offers a reminder of how important (and delicate) the NOTAM system is to pilots and our entire aviation system.
A NOTAM is a notice containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations but not known far enough in advance to be publicized by other means. It states the abnormal status of a component of the National Airspace System (NAS). NOTAM information classifications include Domestic (NOTAM D) and Flight Data Center (FDC).
NOTAM (D) information is disseminated for all navigational facilities that are part of the NAS, all public use aerodromes, seaplane bases, and heliports listed in the Chart Supplement U.S. NOTAM (D) information includes such data as taxiway closures, personnel and equipment near or crossing runways, and airport lighting aids that do not affect instrument approach criteria, such as a VASI or PAPI. There are several types of NOTAM Ds:
- Airport activity and conditions, to include field conditions.
- Airspace to include special use airspace and general airspace activity like UAS or pyrotechnics.
- Visual and radio navigational aids.
- Communication and services.
- Pointer NOTAMs. NOTAMs issued to point to additional aeronautical information. When pointing to another NOTAM, the keyword in the pointer NOTAM must match the keyword in the original NOTAM. Pointer NOTAMs should be issued for, but are not limited to, TFRs, Airshows, Temporary SUA, major NAS system interruptions, etc.
FDC NOTAMs. On those occasions when it becomes necessary to disseminate information that is regulatory in nature, an FDC NOTAM is issued. FDC NOTAMs include NOTAMs such as:
- Amendments to published IAPs and other current aeronautical charts.
- Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR). Pilots should read NOTAMs in their entirety as some TFRs may allow pilots to fly through the flight restriction should they request permission to do so and subsequently receive it. Pilots are encouraged to use online preflight resources as they provide graphics and plain language interpretations for TFRs.
- High barometric pressure warning.
- Laser light activity.
- ADS-B, TIS-B, and FIS-B service availability.
- Satellite-based systems such as WAAS or GPS.
- Special Notices.
It’s important for all stakeholders to have access to the latest information via the NOTAM system which is why the recent outage had such immediate and drastic ramifications for air traffic. NOTAMs can be retrieved through your favorite flight planning app or online at https://pilotweb.nas.faa.gov/PilotWeb/. NOTAM information is also available enroute via ADS-B or from Flight Service.
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