What is the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM)? The system behind the chaotic outage that grounded flights all across the U.S.

January 11, 2023, 1:37 PM UTC
Travelers wait in the terminal as an Alaska Airlines plane sits at a gate at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles
The US Federal Aviation Authority ordered a temporary halt to all domestic flight departures Wednesday, after a major system outage that disrupted air traffic across the country.
Stefani Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of flights across the U.S. were grounded Wednesday morning after the Federal Aviation Administration’s system that sends vital communications to pilots experienced an outage.

The FAA said in a statement that it was working to restore its Notice to Air Missions System, but until it was fully operational again, flights across the national airspace would be affected.

Domestic departures were expected to be paused until at least 9:30 a.m. ET., but at around 8:55 a.m. ET the FAA lifted the ground stop.

Flight tracking site FlightAware showed more than 1,300 delays and almost 50 cancellations across the U.S. just after 8 a.m. ET.

By 10:30 a.m. ET, the number of delays had risen to 1,974, according to FlightAware, with 288 flights reported to be canceled.

Chicago O’Hare was the worst affected airport, the data showed, with 242 delays and 37 cancelations. Atlanta Airport followed closely behind, with 204 delays and 17 cancelations.

Was the FAA hacked?

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a tweet that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the FAA’s system outage, and that there was no evidence of a cyberattack.

After announcing that flights were no longer grounded, the FAA said it was continuing to investigate the cause of the initial problem.

What is a NOTAM?

A NOTAM is a memo sent to workers involved with flight operations—like airport ground staff and pilots—alerting them to an abnormality within the United States National Airspace System.

Pilots check the NOTAM system before they fly.

The notices are sent out when flight operations personnel need to be alerted to essential information that isn’t known far enough in advance for it to be publicized via usual communications channels.  

They inform staff, in real-time, about the abnormal status of the airspace, as well as changes to any procedures, services or hazards in the National Airspace System.

Information included in a NOTAM could include closed runways, equipment outages, and other potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the flight, according to the FAA.

Until Dec. 2021, the notices were known as Notices to Airmen.

The FAA changed the name to make it “inclusive of all aviators and missions.”

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