In the early hours of Wednesday morning, flights across the US were halted after the aviation regulator FAA imposed a general ban on takeoffs. The incident was triggered when the country’s central NOTAM (notification to air missions) system was mysteriously interrupted and rumors swirled that it was a cyberattack.
While these have since been dismissed (the FAA blamed a “damaged database file” for the outage), the incident highlighted the industry’s heavy reliance on IT and the problems this could cause.
NOTAMs communicate necessary pre-flight information to pilots, controllers and airline operations centers. These are crucial: pilots refer to NOTAMs to check for updates on active runways at their destination, potential airspace restrictions, imminent hazards, safety alerts and even weather.
This explains why yesterday’s outage brought a brief but important pause to the US aircraft schedules. Shortly after 7am, the FAA announced that it had ordered a 9am break on takeoffs and landings to give time to “verify the integrity of flight and safety information.” Even before the FAA’s announcement, United Airlines had suspended all flights.
But at 8:15 am, departures from several airports began to resume, and the FAA reported that “progress has been made in restoring the Notification to Air Missions system.” About an hour later, the system was confirmed to be fully restored and the flight ban was lifted. Still, around 10,000 flights were delayed and 1,300 canceled during the event.
New technology and old systems
This is the first time the US has experienced such a major disruption to the NOTAM system, and the country hasn’t had a major airline run aground in two decades. However, the incident has renewed concerns about two major threats to the secure and punctual operation of the world’s airline network: outdated IT systems and cyberattacks.
The continued digitization of air travel has created a perfect storm as legacy IT infrastructure struggles to adapt with newer software and gradual system upgrades trigger occasional outages.
Meanwhile, opportunities for airline cybercrime have increased with paperless cockpits, in-flight Wi-Fi, and digitized inflight entertainment systems that allow for advanced pairing and connectivity.
Disruptions and disruptions are nothing new in Europe. In early 2022, British Airways, known for its mix of obsolete, outsourced and recently upgraded systems, suffered three major outages in less than four weeks.
At one point, the carrier was essentially forced to “work on paper”. And last summer, all flights from London Gatwick were grounded for more than 90 minutes, blaming a glitch in their air traffic control systems.
In December 2014, a more serious incident resulted from a longstanding error in the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (Nats) IT system. During the outage, thousands of passengers were stranded as flights were canceled or delayed at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted during the busy holiday season.
Should we expect more problems in the future?
Eurocontrol, Europe’s central body for the coordination and planning of air traffic control, has warned that 2023 will be the toughest year of the past decade, and while citing the Ukraine war, extra aircraft in the system and possible industrial action, the agency said as part of the reason that IT system changes would make the European He also warned that it would significantly challenge the uninterrupted operation of the skies.
Data from the organization shows that delays not caused by weather, disruption or personnel issues have increased from six percent to 22 percent in 2022; this is mainly due to IT system implementations at aviation control centers in Reims, Prague and Lisbon, all of which are key central hubs for European air traffic systems.
Meanwhile, cyberattacks are hitting the industry like never before, with a 530 percent annual increase in incidents between 2019 and 2020, according to a report by the European Air Traffic Management Computer Emergency Response Team.
These attacks can cause significant headaches for airlines. In November 2015, most of Sweden’s air traffic control capabilities were blocked for five days after a cyberattack by Fancy Bear, a Russian cyberespionage group that may have links to the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. Although initially attributing the outage to a solar flare, Sweden has since confirmed that the problems were the result of a malicious cyberattack.
Steps are being taken to counter the risk that the responsibility of combating cybercrime falls on a combination of governments, regulators and the aviation industry. While the UN aviation special agency ICAO underlines the need for an increase in civil aviation sector personnel knowledgeable in cybersecurity, the UK’s Department of Transport’s Aviation Cybersecurity Strategy outlines ways to keep the country’s aviation sector safe. from both malicious and unintentional problems with communication and information systems.
However, upgrading and maintaining systems is a potentially costly demand for airlines grappling with huge financial losses caused by the pandemic and government restrictions.