FAA system failure

By Henry W. Hills, Opinion Contributor at The Hill

“Millions of Americans woke up Wednesday morning to find out they weren’t going anywhere. Around 6:30 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that its Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system had failed. By 9 a.m. the ground stop was lifted, but the damage was already done. Thousands of flights were delayed or cancelled.

It appears that the NOTAM outage was the result of a system failure, but the nation’s critical infrastructure faces a range of threats — everything from Russian hackers, to weather events to angry individuals with guns. So, the failure and subsequent air travel chaos brought on by this latest cyber failure could serve as a real-life demonstration of what might happen if risks to critical infrastructure systems are left unaddressed. 

It is too early to know the exact causes and consequences of the NOTAM failure, but two things are clear: It was bad, and it could have been worse.

Based on estimates of the economic consequences of Southwest Airlines’ flight scheduling woes earlier this holiday season, the economic damage from this two- to three-hour disruption could exceed $50 million from flight cancellations alone. And as large as this estimate is, it doesn’t account for the more than 10,000 delayed flights and inconvenience and angst travelers experienced when their plans were scuttled and they were stranded.

But air traffic systems are hardly the only critical functions served by infrastructure that faces persistent threats. Disruptions of systems underlying financial transactions could halt commerce and business across sectors. Outages of the Global Positioning System could scuttle supply chains, transportation and even cash withdrawals.

Getty Images by Vincent Albert

Failure of the nation’s electric grid or oil and gas pipelines could leave communities without power and heat. These are just a few examples of systems that could be at risk, and failures of any one could ripple across the others.

The threats these systems face are many and increasing. 

Russian attacks on infrastructure in Georgia and Ukraine illustrate the perils critical infrastructure can face from malicious agents. Recent firearm attacks on electricity transformers in the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina show how the risk need not require advanced attack capabilities. Frigid temperatures in the southern U.S., ice storms in Canada and drought across the Mississippi River Valley highlight how weather and natural disasters can threaten infrastructure. And the disruptions of supply chains, manufacturing, education and health care taught lessons about how even pandemics can threaten infrastructure.”

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