The US Commercial Aviation’s Outdated Technology

The US Commercial Aviation’s Outdated Technology

DALLAS — Computers play an important and expanding role in aviation. Many critical systems, both on board and on the ground, rely on sophisticated computer systems to function properly.

This reliance has grown as computers are used to implement more and more operational functionality and as entirely new systems are developed. The question is, how often are these new systems developed in order to replace the old ones?

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), its thirty-year-old NOTAM software is a minimum of six years away from an upgrade.

Wednesday’s Notices to Air Missions (NOTAM) database malfunction led to the FAA implementing the first countrywide suspension of air traffic in more than 20 years. The FAA requires flight crews to review NOTAMs before every flight for security reasons. Without entry to this data, an aircraft cannot legally depart—hence the suspension.

The FAA later said that “employees who did not follow protocols” were to blame for the computer system breakdown that culminated in the delay that resulted in thousands of airline holds and cancellations. 

Since the crisis, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has spoken with top FAA executives numerous times and stressed that he wants the NOTAM database upgraded far more quickly than the FAA plans to do so.

The aviation body sought US$29.4m for its Aeronautical Information Management Program, which comprises the NOTAM system, in its budget forecast for 2023. The system upgrade needs to “remove the deteriorating older hardware that presently performs that operation in the national airspace system,” according to the administration.

The FAA claimed it performed a “preliminary analysis” of the NOTAM database’s malfunction. Operations resumed normally on Thursday, with the FAA stating then that a data file was corrupted by workers “who did not follow procedures.”

As the FAA begins its federal funding reauthorization process, Wednesday’s failure is anticipated to be a significant sticking point.

Airlines have raised concerns about a lack of funding, a lack of manpower, and antiquated FAA technology while also receiving their fair share of government blame for schedule breakdowns.

The Aviation Community Reacts

The FAA’s most recent budget, which included millions of dollars for “inclusive” language and “environmental justice,” did not include funding for critical system upgrades. This has infuriated pilots.

According to Fox News, JP Tristani, an aviation specialist, veteran, and pilot, said that it was “ridiculous” that the DoT or the FAA would invest in such “drivel,” adding that Pete Buttigieg was “liable and accountable for the management of the FAA.”

Sal Lagonia, a lawyer for the aviation industry, sided with Tristani. The agency’s spending on trivial matters, according to Lagonia, “does nothing to help these technological errors.” 

“Just take a look at how NOTAM has changed. For many years, it has been known as “Notices to Airmen.” The government recently put a lot of time, money, and effort into renaming the program “Notices to Air Missions” in place of the term “Men.”

“The names of documents had to be modified, etc. Spend that time and money improving the safety-related systems that make and maintain air travel,” he added.

The FAA’s investments, according to Tristani, had “nothing to do with the highest standards, training, and performance criteria required in this highly sophisticated profession.”

“My biggest concerns are the safety of my aircraft, my training, and that of my copilot. I am mainly concerned about the weather along the route when it comes to “climate change,” Tristani continued.

As Lagonia put it, “technology is wonderful—until it breaks. Pilots have backup plans for how they organize their flights. Organizations must act similarly by performing backup after backup.” 

We have an upcoming report detailing the ins and outs of the NOTAM system, so stay tuned to Airways.

Southwest Airlines Tech Meltdown

Airlines are not immune to system upgrades for bookings and cancellations. Shareholders of Southwest Airlines (WN) filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the airline and several members of its management due to the airline’s holiday meltdown at the end of December. The software used by WN is also said to be from the 1990s.

According to the complaint, the executives “ignored the substantial risk that having out-of-date technology posed to” the company’s business. According to the lawsuit, WN is particularly vulnerable to interruptions because of its distinctive point-to-point route structure, the fact that it permits more nonstop routes than other airlines, and its aggressive flight schedule. 

The complaint uses a June 2020 computer error that led to nationwide airline delays as a premonition of the terrible Christmas season that ended on December 31, 2022.

Beginning on December 22, 2022, WN canceled tens of thousands of flights because of a storm that caused travel chaos all throughout the nation. The airline kept canceling up to 60% of its flights during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year as its scheduling system failed, while other airlines resumed regular operations as the severe weather subsided.

Eight days after the incident, the airline finally resumed regular operations.

The suit claims that after the COO indicated the company’s system couldn’t handle crew scheduling, Southwest’s shares fell 12% between December 23 and December 28, last year. The lawsuit claims that the earlier, insufficient disclosures to shareholders were “materially inaccurate and misleading” and broke the law.

Commercial aircraft are technological marvels thanks to aeronautical engineers who pushed the boundaries of hardware and software, resulting in air travel becoming the safest mode of transportation.

However, the system issues and the resulting challenges to the safety and software engineering research communities have come to the fore when it comes to managing such complex machines. It is time for the FAA and some, if not all, US airlines to prioritize.

How are commercial aviation software systems in your country or region? Be sure to leave your comments on our social media channels.

Featured image: Brandon Farris/Airways

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