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U.S. Lawmakers press FAA chief on computer outage, nationwide ground stop


Passengers exit a bus at Terminal 2 as they wait for the resumption of flights at O’Hare International Airport after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered airlines to suspend all domestic departures due to a disruption in the system, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Jim Vondruska/File Photo/File Photo

U.S. lawmakers pressed the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Thursday on steps the agency was taking to ensure there would be no repeat of a pilot messaging database failure that led to the first nationwide ground stop since 2001.

“It was just purely a screwup,” said Representative Sam Graves, who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, after emerging from a meeting with Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen.

On Wednesday, the FAA told lawmakers it had revoked access to a pilot messaging database by contractor personnel involved in a file deletion that disrupted more than 11,000 flights on Jan. 11.

Asked if he was confident it would not happen again, Graves said: “I can’t say that. It’s the FAA. It’s a government-run operation.”

Graves plans to hold a Feb. 7 hearing that will look at aviation safety issues.

Nolen declined to comment after the briefing.

Representative Rick Larsen, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Thursday’s briefing had been a high-level look at what went wrong and what the agency was doing to ensure it did not happen again.

“I don’t understand how trained people” can make the deletion error,” Larsen said. “The investigation will hopefully explain how someone zigged instead of zagged.”

FAA plans to respond by Friday to a detailed letter lawmakers sent earlier this month asking questions about the investigation, Larsen said.
The FAA identified to lawmakers the contractor involved as Bethesda-based Spatial Front. Spatial Front declined to comment.

“All personnel from Spatial Front directly involved in the deletion have lost access to FAA buildings and systems while we complete our investigation,” the FAA email said.

The deletion was made in the Notice to Air Missions system, which provides pilots, flight crews and other users of U.S. airspace with critical safety notices.

The FAA said the deletion had occurred while personnel were working “to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database.”