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Domestic flight departures resume after FAA restores its safety system


Federal Aviation Administration stopped all domestic flights in the U.S. this morning after the system providing pilots with pre-flight safety notices went offline. Now, in a statement from the FAA, it said they had ordered airlines to pause departures until at least 9 a.m. Eastern Time while it tried to restore its Notice to Air Missions system. The agency now says normal air traffic operations are gradually resuming at airports across the country. More than 4,000 flights were delayed and 800 canceled. For more context, let's turn to David Soucie. He's a safety and accident investigator and former FAA official. Thanks for joining us, David.


BROWN: Yeah. Can you start first by telling us simply a little bit more about the Notice to Air Missions system and what it does and how critical it is?

SOUCIE: Well, it really gives all the information for anything that's abnormal on a flight. If you're flying from Denver to Chicago or something like that, then you would look at the notice for every incident there, anything that might affect your flight for 25 miles to the left and 25 miles to the right, all the way through. So if you have any kind of interruptions, even cranes, anything like that on your approach, all of that will be in the NOTAM system to let you know if it's safe to land there - also, construction information. Anything that's abnormal is what - needed by the pilot to know that he can complete that flight safely.

BROWN: So was there something abnormal that caused the system to go offline this morning?

SOUCIE: We don't know what it was. But it is back up online. However, there is a disclaimer in there that's a little bit concerning. So it says that now there may be NOTAMs that are not in there yet, so go ahead and take extra precautions. And then it makes you click a button that says, yeah, I read this. So it's very concerning. And now it's basically shifted the responsibility back to the pilots and the airlines. So...

BROWN: Yeah, the folks on the ground, the airlines themselves, people across the country. What about a possibility of a cyberattack? I know the FAA is downplaying that.

SOUCIE: Yeah. I don't think that's the case. I think that the system would have gone down in a much different manner had that happened. But I think, right now, at this point, it is a safe system. And they're going to have to investigate why it went down at all and make sure they protect against that in the future. But I don't think it was a cyber system - or cyberattack.

BROWN: So David, yeah, so how, then, unusual is this type of a situation for airlines and airports?

SOUCIE: Well, it's incredibly essential for what they need to do. And they can get the information other ways, but this centralizes it for them. So, yeah...

BROWN: So we're saying no...

SOUCIE: It is super critical.

BROWN: Right. Excuse me for stepping on you. But - so if the FAA is ruling out a potential cyberattack, what should officials with the FAA be looking for now?

SOUCIE: Well, just the system capacity is the biggest issue just - similar to what happened with Southwest Airlines, with their system.

BROWN: Right.

SOUCIE: The system's immeasurably complex. And if they're not upgrading their system as things move forward, then they're going to find themselves in a difficult situation.

BROWN: That was safety and accident investigator David Soucie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.