What is NOTAM, the system that failed and stopped all flights in the US?

(CNN) — An essential Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) computer system, which went down on Wednesday and briefly halted all flights in the United States, provides airlines with a digital bulletin board with crucial security updates.

The system is known as Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM for its acronym in English. Send alerts to pilots to inform them of conditions that could affect the safety of their flights. It’s separate from the air traffic control system that keeps planes at a safe distance from each other, but it’s another critical tool for air safety.

NOTAM messages may include information that lights are out on a particular runway, or that a tower near an airport does not have the required security lights in place, or that an aviation show is taking place in nearby airspace.

“It’s like telling a trucker that a road is closed. It’s key information,” said Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant for Boyd Group International.

Boyd and others said Wednesday’s problems are a sign that computer systems need to be updated.

“The FAA’s catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network is in dire need of significant improvements,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the US Travel Association, a trade group for the travel and tourism industries. . “Americans deserve a comprehensive, smooth and safe travel experience. And our country’s economy depends on a world-class air transportation system.”

Although many flights are carried out without the need to see one of these notices, it is important that NOTAM messages reach the pilots, who are trained to verify their existence.

The FAA also manages the country’s air traffic control system, in which air traffic controllers use radar to track all planes in their airspace and radio communications with their cockpits to guide them safely. The computer systems that form the backbone of the air traffic control system have also failed. But when that happens, it usually only affects a region of the country, not the entire national airspace.

NOTAM is a national system, so its ruling on Wednesday meant that flights across the country were ordered not to take off for a couple of hours before being cleared to fly again shortly before 9 a.m. of Miami).

If no new issues arise, flights should be back to normal soon, although it may take time to get all delayed flights back into the air. Just before noon ET on Wednesday, the FlightAware tracking service showed some 7,000 delayed flights to, from and within the United States, with nearly 1,100 canceled flights in total.

Aviation analysis company Circium said 23,000 domestic and international flights to or from the United States were scheduled for Wednesday.

“I think at 6 p.m. we won’t even know what happened,” Boyd said.

But if the problem goes on too long, the flight crews who are prepared to fly the delayed flights will run out of time in their duty day. In that case, a delayed flight could become canceled if another new crew is not found.

NOTAM notices have been around for decades. But, until December 2021, they were known by the name “Notice to Airmen” (Notice to Airmen), although the acronym remains the same.

Changed to remove a sexist term and because notices were also sent to drone operators and not just pilots on board aircraft.

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