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An Explanation for the Recent Air Travel Chaos

January 17, 2023
Airport Gate

Alongside the fresh start of a new year came a whirlwind of worry surrounding air travel.  

Flight delays and cancellations surrounding the holidays left thousands of travelers stranded in airports across the nation, some states away from their baggage and belongings, others even farther from their families and home. Southwest Airlines canceled 5,400 flights over two days alone. 

With little control over flight arrangements, travelers were left to do nothing but wait and hope for things to settle down.  

But shortly after followed the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system malfunction, in which the FAA said a “corrupted file” created a shutdown, causing airlines across the country to cancel, reschedule and rebook thousands of flights while travelers were once again stranded and left to their own devices. 

The industry felt the impact of the ground stop as thousands of delegates attending PCMA’s annual Convening Leaders in early January had flights scheduled during the NOTAM.  

While White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the following in a statement: “There is no evidence of a cyberattack at this point.” But the likelihood of one happening in the future is enough to raise concerns. The last time the FAA ordered a national ground stop occurred September 11, 2001. 

But what do the recent events in air travel mean for the meetings and events industry? A breakdown of statistics related to the national ground stop shows what could happen if another is to occur, and the possible obstacles planners and attendees may face.  

Notable outcomes of the FAA’s January 11th NOTAM include:  

  • Nearly 1,300 U.S. flights were canceled, while more than 9,000 were delayed, according to FlightAware, which tracks delays and cancellations daily. 
  • Normal operations resumed Wednesday evening after several hours of grounded flights and departures, but the ripple effects of the ground stop lasted for days in the form of further delays and cancellations. 
  • This is the second reported FAA computer issue this year. The first happened on January 2 and affected a smaller population but led to significant flight delays in Florida.  
  • Major carriers that include Southwest, United and American all reported 40% or more of flights Wednesday, January 11, delayed or canceled.  
  • The core operating system for the NOTAM database and software used by the FAA has been in operation since the 1990s. The 30-year-old, outdated technology is at least six years away from being updated, according to the FAA’s planned timeline. 

The FAA said its first national ground stop in more than 20 years was caused by a system outage triggered by a damaged database file. While the FAA continues working to determine the root cause of the issue and “take all needed steps to prevent this kind of disruption from happening again,” the aged software remains a concern as the likelihood of a system outage happening again increases. 

More information regarding the FAA’s NOTAM and other aviation news can be found at www.faa.gov.  

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.