FAA chaos and foreboding on Friday 13th

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Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day across most of the Western world. It can leave airports quiet as some passengers become too spooked to fly. But they are wrong, the day to avoid was Wednesday January 11th after the FAA temporarily grounded nearly 10,000 domestic and international flights, including 219 business jets.

The culprit is thought to be a computer outage, causing the vital Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) safety system to fail. The FAA’s latest update blamed the chaos on a damaged database file. While there is little evidence the FAA was directly responsible, it does raise questions about whether this could signal further problems to come. The recent turmoil on Capitol Hill surrounding the election (eventually) of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives has done little to allay concern. (The aviation industry is still waiting for Congress to approve the latest FAA administrator.)

It’s not just flights that fell victim to this week’s travel chaos. Scott McCreary, shareholder and Practice Group leader, McAfee & Taft, says the disruption may have also impacted deals. “Obviously, if you can’t move an aircraft and you had a transaction scheduled to close, it’s going to affect the deal,” he tells Corporate Jet Investor.

McCreary thinks the FAA is going through a particularly unlucky period. “The FAA was given a mandate to upgrade its technology and computer systems and other systems, and then Covid hit,” he says. “They likely didn’t hire as many people as they normally would have during the last two or three years, thinking that the CARES [Civil Aircraft Registry Electronic System] changes would be in place, and then you had Covid and the natural attrition of the staff, and with retirements, they got behind.”

The CARES act was intended to upgrade the FAA’s technology to make its operations easier and more efficient. This week’s outage can’t definitively be linked to CARES changes, but it’s clear that a lack of labour is a major issue.

The NBAA has blamed the outage on outdated technology, stating: “The NBAA has been urging the FAA to enhance the resiliency of the NOTAM system since 2018 and ensure that there are strengthened backup capabilities in the event of an outage.”

While conspiracy theories such as cyber-attacks float around the internet, explanations such as lack of staff, funding and resources seem more realistic.

Jack Gilchrist, founding director and shareholder, Gilchrist Aviation Law, highlighted other issues linked to the FAA recently. Last month the administration surprised the industry with new rules designed to protect privacy that blocked public access to ancillary records for aircraft ownership. The system has already been known to be antiquated and this new development is only slowing transactions further, with sources telling CJI that they haven’t heard back from the FAA about document requests in the past three weeks.

According to Gilchrist, the new rules at the FAA have been less than helpful. He says: “The new procedure for requesting ancillary records from the FAA has not been optimal. It has been our experience that requests are not responded to promptly or consistently, despite following the procedures detailed by the FAA. As it remains, the current state of things is far from a sustainable solution.”

While the jury is still out about the cause of the grounding of flights this week, the FAA certainly has a case to answer about how it is resourced and how it is performing.

The industry needs reassurance that the FAA will be properly regulated and resourced in the future, not just so it can prepare for what is to come. McCreary reckons the current issues the administration is having are just growing pains which will be resolved and help the industry in the long term, saying: “I do think the FAA has a plan and they’re implementing it. A lot of this will be solved hopefully this year, and I think the implementation of the new technology is really going to help the industry.”

Let’s hope this Friday 13th brings the FAA some much-needed good luck.

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