The head of the Federal Aviation Administration told lawmakers on Wednesday that the agency has taken steps to avoid a repeat of last month’s technology failure that stopped for a while all flights across the country, but he said he couldn’t promise there wouldn’t be any more breakdowns.
Separately, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen defended the safety of air travel in the United States following recent incidents in John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Art Austin, Texas, and off the coast of Hawaii. Still, Nolen said, he is putting together a panel of experts to review airline security.
“We’re going through the safest period in aviation history, but we’re not taking that for granted,” Nolen said during testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee. “Recent events remind us that we cannot be complacent.”
The committee hearing was billed as a review of the failure of the FAA’s system that alerts pilots to safety, but lawmakers were most animated when they questioned Nolen about recent flight scares.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, showed a video reenactment of the Feb. 4 incident in Austin, when a FedEx cargo plane flew over the top of a Southwest Airlines flight. Both planes were allowed to use the same runway. The FedEx pilots aborted the landing in time to avoid a collision.
“How can this happen?” Cruz asked. “How did air traffic control direct one plane to the runway for takeoff and the other to land and they were both within 100 feet of each other?”
Nolen said the incident is still under investigation by his agency and the National Transportation Safety Board, but he suggested the fact that the planes did not collide should be reassuring.
“It’s not what we expected to happen, but if we think about how we train our air traffic controllers and our pilots, the system is working as it’s designed to prevent what you say could have been a terrible outcome. Nolen said.
Nolen noted that the United States has not had a fatal crash involving an airline since 2009. However, he said he is forming a group of experts to review the aviation system and will hold a safety summit next month to determine what steps are needed to maintain the records of recent years.
Failure of the FAA notification distribution system, are called NOTAMs, for the pilots, began late at night on Jan. 10 when contractors accidentally deleted files, damaging the main database and backup, he said. Attempts to resolve the problem by the next morning failed, and the FAA grounded all planes for nearly two hours on Jan. 11, causing 1,300 flight cancellations and 11,000 delays.
Nolen said there is now a delay in synchronizing the databases to avoid the failure of the primary and backup at the same time. But he cannot rule out repetitions.
“Can I sit here today and tell you that there will never be another problem with the NOTAM system? No, sir, I can’t,” Nolen said during Cruz’s questioning.
Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, demanded that Nolen build additional reserves into the system to avoid another failure.
Part of the NOTAM system is 30 years old, although most airline flights use the newer system, Nolen said. But during the outage, all flights were grounded.
Nolen, a pilot and former top FAA safety official, has been acting administrator since the agency’s last Senate-confirmed head stepped down in March 2022, halfway through his five-year term. President Biden’s nomination for Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington has stalled amid questions about his limited aviation experience and involvement in a corruption investigation.