Did Old Computers Bring a Halt to All US Flights? // The FAA has a very public problem

Was it a cyberattack? That’s the question that was repeatedly asked last Wednesday when the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered all flights to stop taking off for 90 minutes because the transportation agency was having a computer problem with its Notice to Air Missions system, or NOTAM. It was the first time that such a stop on aviation had taken place since 9/11, and people’s worries about the computer outage ran in a 9/11-type direction.

Air traffic was restored relatively quickly, although thousands of flights were delayed or canceled. But the questions about the outage weren’t answered quite as rapidly.

The basic gist of the conditions that caused the outage did emerge relatively soon. Someone—according to some reports, two people—working for an FAA contractor had introduced a bad file into the computer’s data. The bad file was copied into the backup files, as well, so even when FAA technicians tried to run NOTAM from the backups, it didn’t work.

The investigation into whether this was an accident or deliberate sabotage is still ongoing. But there is suspicion that while in this instance the problem was caused by human error, the FAA’s computer systems are equally at fault, simply because they are too old. That is a problem shared by many US governmental agencies.

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