The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) identified the contractor involved in the outage of a safety bulletin system that caused a stop in passenger air travel nationwide.
The agency announced on Jan. 26, that it would directly ban contract personnel involved in the incident from accessing its buildings and systems during the investigation, reported Reuters.
Federal investigators identified Bethesda-based Spatial Front as the contractor behind the mass grounding of over 11,000 flights that occurred on Jan. 11.
The announcement came one day after the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released a new report over its investigation into the termination of hundreds of Southwest Airlines flights during the holidays that left more than 1 million passengers stranded at airports across the country.
Transportation Department and the FAA Investigate Two Successive Aviation Incidents
Having two major, high-profile, incidents in less than a month has become an embarrassment for the Biden administration, as the airline industry tries to deal with a post-pandemic-era travel boom.
The FAA released a preliminary report on Jan. 19 that blamed contract workers for allegedly causing an outage on its Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system, after they inadvertently deleted crucial system data and caused the first nationwide halt to air traffic since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Government aviation investigators stated that the deletion of data occurred when the contractors were attempting “to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database.”
The NOTAM system distributes warnings about potential safety hazards, such as closed runways, that affect active flights.
All flight crews are required to consult with the FAA system before taking off.
The company reportedly had more than 50 staff members at the FAA offices working on over 90 “mission critical” systems, including the NOTAM system, according to The Washington Post.
House Committee To Hold Hearings Over The Recent Groundings
Members of Congress have sworn that they will launch a thorough investigation into the latest flight disruptions, as they begin work on a major package of legislation tied to FAA funding for 2023.
Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen briefed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about the status of the investigation on Jan. 26, but gave few new details about its findings.
“It was just purely a screwup,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Chairman of the House committee, told reporters after emerging from the meeting with Nolen.
When asked if he thought a similar incident would likely happen again, the congressman replied, “I can’t say that. It’s the FAA. It’s a government-run operation.”
Graves promised to hold a February 7 committee hearing to review recent aviation safety issues.
“I don’t understand how trained people can make the deletion error,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the committee.
“The investigation will hopefully explain how someone zigged instead of zagged,” he commented.
The FAA told lawmakers they would send further details by letter on Jan. 28, according to Larsen.
Authorities Still Reviewing Southwest’s Operations Debacle
Meanwhile, the FAA is still trying to investigate the Southwest Airline’s debacle that happened in late December and caused more than 16,700 flights to be delayed over an 11-day span when the airline’s systems broke down during a wave of bad weather.
The agency is looking at whether executives at Southwest misled customers by selling tickets for flights, knowing full well that they would face major delays.
The airline’s CEO, Bob Jordan, said that the wave of last-minute flight cancellations during the holidays, had overwhelmed their aging electronic schedule and staffing systems, leading to the operational meltdown.
“We disrupted thousands and thousands of customers and really made a mess for our employees and customers, and I can’t apologize enough for that,” he said.
“At the end of the day, that kind of disruption cannot happen again.”
The airline was fully staffed for the holidays and there were no indications their systems would fail, said Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s chief commercial officer, on a Jan. 26 earnings call.
Southwest told investors on the earnings call that the holiday disaster would cost the company $800 million in related expenses, leading to a net loss of $220 million in the final quarter of 2022 alone.
In contrast, rivals like American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Alaska Airlines, all reported a profit in the fourth quarter.
Southwest executives admitted that the company did not expect to earn a profit this quarter because of the December cancellations, and is expected to lose over $350 million according to their estimates.
Southwest Promises Software Improvements While FAA Plans To Release System Upgrade
Jordan promised that the carrier would spend $1.3 billion to upgrade its systems for 2023 to avoid a repeat of the grounding controversy.
He said that the airline had hired an outside firm to review the incident, and that a report should be completed within weeks.
Jordan also promised that the carrier would fully cooperate with lawmakers, who will hold hearings on the holiday cancellations along with the DOT, while the FAA conducts its full review.
The latest incident in January was one of the largest examples of a major shutdown of a government-operated IT system caused by a damaged database, raising questions about the future rollout of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System.
The FAA said the operational software upgrade will increase the safety, efficiency, and resilience of the National Airspace System and is expected to be in service by 2030.
Reuters contributed to this report.