ADVERTISEMENT

Tech Glitch Causes Delays for Airline Passengers in US: Could India Be Next?

As details about a system outage in the US continue to pour in, could something similar happen in India?

Published
Explainers
5 min read
Tech Glitch Causes Delays for Airline Passengers in US: Could India Be Next?
i

The Quint DAILY

For impactful stories you just can’t miss

By subscribing you agree to our Privacy Policy

Normal air traffic operations were disrupted in several parts of the US on Wednesday, 11 January, following a system outage.

Specifically, the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) System, operated by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), "was not processing updated information."

After acknowledging that its NOTAM system had "failed", the country's civil aviation regulator took a call and "ordered airlines to pause all domestic departures until 9 am Eastern Time."

"Operations are normal at all the airports in India and as of now there is no impact on flights from India to the US amid a glitch in US Federal Aviation Administration's system," ANI quoted a senior DGCA official as saying.

Even though it lasted only for a few hours, the hold-up had far-reaching consequences, with USA Today reporting that around 10,000 flights had been delayed or cancelled.

As details about the US outage continue to pour in, what was the reason behind it? Could something similar happen in India? If so, are we prepared for it? Let's take a look.

Tech Glitch Causes Delays for Airline Passengers in US: Could India Be Next?

  1. 1. What Led to the Outage?

    Corrupted files? The NOTAM outage that led to a nationwide ground stop of domestic flights in the US has been traced back to "a damaged database file," the FAA said, as per a CNN report.

    Centralisation? NOTAMs in the US are displayed on a monitor that also provides the scheduled flight path. It is a centralised system, making it all the more susceptible to glitches or failures, according to a report by The Indian Express.

    Poor management? In addition to overcrowding at US airports, staff shortages and poor infrastructure may have also exacerbated the crisis sparked by the system failure, the report added.

    Cyberattack? While the White House has ruled out that the outage was caused by a cyberattack, ABC reporter Sam Sweeney pointed out that the NOTAM system in Canada was also down for over three hours on Wednesday morning. "Officials say they don’t believe the two are linked," he clarified.

    US President Joe Biden has directed the Department of Transportation to conduct an investigation of the system outage.

    Expand
  2. 2. Which System Is Used in India?

    Both the US and India publish NOTAMs before flight operations, but there are a few differences. For starters, NOTAM in India stands for Notice to Airmen, and they are issued by the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

    The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the authority that is responsible for setting the standards of a NOTAM.

    What is a NOTAM?

    "[NOTAM] is basically a safety alerting system that notifies the pilot if there are any changes in the aerodrome facility, like a runway closure or a taxiway closure," Ravish Bhalla, a pilot who flies the Boeing 737 for a domestic carrier, told The Quint.

    Putting it in terms we'd better understand, Bhalla further said, "Let’s say tomorrow there’s this heavy jam because of fog in Delhi and the transport authority tells us that NH8 will have work-in-progress, so don’t use that expressway...so you’ll get a notice through various platforms like the newspaper or WhatsApp, that during this time this passage should be avoided."

    In the past, ship captains who navigate the high seas were similarly warned about hazards through something called Notice to Mariners.

    Snapshot

    NOTAMs usually contain information pertaining to:

    • Occurrence or correction of major defects or impediments in the maneuvering area

    • Changes to and limitations on availability of fuel, oil, and oxygen

    • Presence of hazards which affect air navigation (including obstacles, military exercises, displays, races, major parachuting events outside promulgated sites)

    • Changes in hazardous conditions due to snow, slush, ice or water on the movement area

    • Outbreaks of epidemics necessitating changes in notified requirements for inoculations and quarantine measures

    • Forecasts of solar cosmic radiation

    • Major changes to search and rescue facilities and services available

    • Establishment, withdrawal, and significant changes in operation of aeronautical services, aerodrome(s), or runways

    • Establishment, withdrawal, or significant changes made to electronic, visual, and other aids for air navigation

    • Changes in regulations requiring immediate action

    Here's what a NOTAM looks like.

    (Screenshot: International Civil Aviation Organization)

    Who is privy to the information in a NOTAM? According to Bhalla, it's all those who are involved in making the flight a success. "These are just random numbers, until and unless you are aware of how to read a NOTAM; you have to decipher the NOTAM, it’s pretty easy to read once you’re actually involved in flight operations, like pilots, engineers, and ATC know it," he said.

    Some NOTAMs last for one year and some last for a day, he said, while revealing that pilots who violate these NOTAMs could face penal action.

    Expand
  3. 3. How Does It Work?

    NOTAMs are issued in series, depending on whether it is an international airport, domestic airport, defence-controlled airport, helipad, or private airstrip.

    Pilots need to check "25 nautical miles to either side of your full route of flight" for relevant NOTAMs, The Indian Express reported.

    According to the AAI's official website, NOTAMs are distributed in two ways:

    1. Through the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN) – a global system of communication used by air traffic control and other aviation authorities to exchange information.

    2. Any other means besides telecommunication, such as messenger or postal services

    "It’s a mandate that the pilot gets a NOTAM before every flight; let’s say if I’m rostered in 10-15 days, I’ll get a NOTAM everyday. As a pilot, even if I’m not flying at the moment, I will still get a NOTAM so that I’m aware of what’s happening," Bhalla said.

    Pilots generally receive NOTAMs as hard copies and emails.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Is the Level of Importance of NOTAMs?

    Without NOTAMs, flights run the risk of hitting a flock of birds or not receiving a heads-up about slippery conditions on runways.

    Giving an hypothetical example, Bhalla said, “If there is a runway closure and a pilot lands there, it could be hazardous for the passengers, because as a pilot, I thought that runway was okay."

    "Till the time I don’t have that information, it's not feasible for me to conduct that flight operation," he added.

    Speaking to The Quint, Jitender Bhargava, the former executive director of Air India, said, "There are certain things that are given to a pilot before a flight. Now, if that information is not available with the airline or at the airport, how can a pilot get on?"
    Expand
  5. 5. Does India Need a Fallback Arrangement?

    I've been flying for one-and-a-half years and not faced any issue with India's system, Bhalla asserted.

    "It is a foolproof concept such that [the outage] in the US is very unlikely to happen in any other country and even in the US. But if it happens, it's better to be delayed by some hours than fly without knowing what's happening in that aerodome," he added.

    Underlining the importance of real-time NOTAMs, Bhargava said, "You can give them previous day's information and operate in an environment like Mumbai or Aurangabad or Nagpur, where the weather is generally clear. But if you are in North India, the fog may not have been there yesterday but the fog may be there today." The visibility can be different, he further said.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Led to the Outage?

Corrupted files? The NOTAM outage that led to a nationwide ground stop of domestic flights in the US has been traced back to "a damaged database file," the FAA said, as per a CNN report.

Centralisation? NOTAMs in the US are displayed on a monitor that also provides the scheduled flight path. It is a centralised system, making it all the more susceptible to glitches or failures, according to a report by The Indian Express.

Poor management? In addition to overcrowding at US airports, staff shortages and poor infrastructure may have also exacerbated the crisis sparked by the system failure, the report added.

Cyberattack? While the White House has ruled out that the outage was caused by a cyberattack, ABC reporter Sam Sweeney pointed out that the NOTAM system in Canada was also down for over three hours on Wednesday morning. "Officials say they don’t believe the two are linked," he clarified.

US President Joe Biden has directed the Department of Transportation to conduct an investigation of the system outage.

ADVERTISEMENT

Which System Is Used in India?

Both the US and India publish NOTAMs before flight operations, but there are a few differences. For starters, NOTAM in India stands for Notice to Airmen, and they are issued by the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the authority that is responsible for setting the standards of a NOTAM.

What is a NOTAM?

"[NOTAM] is basically a safety alerting system that notifies the pilot if there are any changes in the aerodrome facility, like a runway closure or a taxiway closure," Ravish Bhalla, a pilot who flies the Boeing 737 for a domestic carrier, told The Quint.

Putting it in terms we'd better understand, Bhalla further said, "Let’s say tomorrow there’s this heavy jam because of fog in Delhi and the transport authority tells us that NH8 will have work-in-progress, so don’t use that expressway...so you’ll get a notice through various platforms like the newspaper or WhatsApp, that during this time this passage should be avoided."

In the past, ship captains who navigate the high seas were similarly warned about hazards through something called Notice to Mariners.

Snapshot

NOTAMs usually contain information pertaining to:

  • Occurrence or correction of major defects or impediments in the maneuvering area

  • Changes to and limitations on availability of fuel, oil, and oxygen

  • Presence of hazards which affect air navigation (including obstacles, military exercises, displays, races, major parachuting events outside promulgated sites)

  • Changes in hazardous conditions due to snow, slush, ice or water on the movement area

  • Outbreaks of epidemics necessitating changes in notified requirements for inoculations and quarantine measures

  • Forecasts of solar cosmic radiation

  • Major changes to search and rescue facilities and services available

  • Establishment, withdrawal, and significant changes in operation of aeronautical services, aerodrome(s), or runways

  • Establishment, withdrawal, or significant changes made to electronic, visual, and other aids for air navigation

  • Changes in regulations requiring immediate action

Here's what a NOTAM looks like.

(Screenshot: International Civil Aviation Organization)

Who is privy to the information in a NOTAM? According to Bhalla, it's all those who are involved in making the flight a success. "These are just random numbers, until and unless you are aware of how to read a NOTAM; you have to decipher the NOTAM, it’s pretty easy to read once you’re actually involved in flight operations, like pilots, engineers, and ATC know it," he said.

Some NOTAMs last for one year and some last for a day, he said, while revealing that pilots who violate these NOTAMs could face penal action.

ADVERTISEMENT

How Does It Work?

NOTAMs are issued in series, depending on whether it is an international airport, domestic airport, defence-controlled airport, helipad, or private airstrip.

Pilots need to check "25 nautical miles to either side of your full route of flight" for relevant NOTAMs, The Indian Express reported.

According to the AAI's official website, NOTAMs are distributed in two ways:

  1. Through the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN) – a global system of communication used by air traffic control and other aviation authorities to exchange information.

  2. Any other means besides telecommunication, such as messenger or postal services

"It’s a mandate that the pilot gets a NOTAM before every flight; let’s say if I’m rostered in 10-15 days, I’ll get a NOTAM everyday. As a pilot, even if I’m not flying at the moment, I will still get a NOTAM so that I’m aware of what’s happening," Bhalla said.

Pilots generally receive NOTAMs as hard copies and emails.

ADVERTISEMENT

What Is the Level of Importance of NOTAMs?

Without NOTAMs, flights run the risk of hitting a flock of birds or not receiving a heads-up about slippery conditions on runways.

Giving an hypothetical example, Bhalla said, “If there is a runway closure and a pilot lands there, it could be hazardous for the passengers, because as a pilot, I thought that runway was okay."

"Till the time I don’t have that information, it's not feasible for me to conduct that flight operation," he added.

Speaking to The Quint, Jitender Bhargava, the former executive director of Air India, said, "There are certain things that are given to a pilot before a flight. Now, if that information is not available with the airline or at the airport, how can a pilot get on?"
ADVERTISEMENT

Does India Need a Fallback Arrangement?

I've been flying for one-and-a-half years and not faced any issue with India's system, Bhalla asserted.

"It is a foolproof concept such that [the outage] in the US is very unlikely to happen in any other country and even in the US. But if it happens, it's better to be delayed by some hours than fly without knowing what's happening in that aerodome," he added.

Underlining the importance of real-time NOTAMs, Bhargava said, "You can give them previous day's information and operate in an environment like Mumbai or Aurangabad or Nagpur, where the weather is generally clear. But if you are in North India, the fog may not have been there yesterday but the fog may be there today." The visibility can be different, he further said.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read and Breaking News at the Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  Airports   domestic flights   outage 

ADVERTISEMENT
Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
22

25 10% off

90

100 10% off

180

200 10% off

or more

PREMIUM

3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
ADVERTISEMENT
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
ADVERTISEMENT
More News
×
×