No sooner had my trickle of Southwest Airlines memes dried up then a whole new batch flooded in like a digital version of an atmospheric river from the sodden Pacific. This time, it was the failure of the NOTAMs system. Shocked was I to learn that (a) so many people didn’t know that it’s now Notices to Air Missions, not to Airman and (b) that a single misplaced 0 or 1 could take down the world’s most efficient and safe airspace system that (c) turns out to be neither. Well, OK, it’s safe at least. I was less shocked that no one sitting around the FAA table when Airmen became Missions didn’t say, “People, this is ^%$#*& stupid, we’re not doing it.” (And let’s just stop blaming ICAO for all this.)
Playing a round of my favorite memes here, I’m not surprised how derisively pilots treat both the basic concept of NOTAMs and the broken, all-but-useless system it has become. Former NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt gained cheers in 2017 when he called NOTAMS “a bunch of garbage that no one pays attention to.” He was right, but thanks to statutory accretion, the airlines are wedded to them like white on rice and without access, they can’t dispatch. Or if they can dispatch, the FAA seems to think it can’t operate the National Airspace System with NOTAMs cratered.
One flyspeck detail that GA pilots may have missed is that under Part 91, we’re technically wedded to NOTAMs, too. In the Preflight Action section of 91.103 is this: “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight,” then it lists the basic stuff you’re supposed to know. If the airlines don’t have it, they can’t dispatch and if GA pilots don’t have it, a defense that NOTAMs were down probably wouldn’t cut it if you, say, blundered into a TFR and caught a Blackhawk intercept. (TFRs have their own system, but you get the point.)
Angels and pinheads, maybe, but the whole system is badly designed and executed. It presents a gusher of useless information that you don’t need and obscures what you do need in reams of impenetrable government speak and statutorily approved abbreviations. That was the root of what Sumwalt was complaining about, following the July 2017 incident in which an Air Canada A320 nearly landed on a taxiway populated with waiting airliners at San Francisco International. NOTAMs were implicated because one describing the closed runway was buried in multiple pages of irrelevant blather. A potentially horrific accident was narrowly averted.
“NOTAMs contain dozens of notices of varying importance, such as closed taxiways, wet runways, and small, unlit towers miles from the airport,” NTSB vice-chairman Bruce Landsberg said at the time. “Information about closed runways, however, is critical. From a human factors perspective, we found that the presentation of information in the NOTAM the crew received did not effectively convey the information about the runway closure.”
The FAA is supposedly modernizing the NOTAMs system, but it’s not known if this week’s outage was related to that. One goal of this is more seamless machine-to-machine linking so users like airline companies can tap into the data river reliably. Any IT professional will tell you that there’s a certain amount of breath holding when system upgrades go live. As for the presentation of NOTAMs, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t noticed much difference. The only thing I look for are closed airports and runways. I don’t give a fig about an unlighted tower 2.6 miles north of the airport and I’ll deal with the closed taxiway after I land. And don’t get me started on all the crap that towers sometimes cram into ATIS broadcasts to no particular benefit to a lone pilot who’s just trying to see the airport and keep frequencies sorted out. The apps I’ve dealt with do a decent job of organizing NOTAMS, but there’s still just too much verbiage in them.
The larger issue is system resilience. During the Southwest debacle, we learned that the company’s business continuation plan was either nonexistent or utterly inadequate. This week, in a New York Times interview, Southwest CEO Bob Jordon admitted the company “messed up,” but he gave the impression that its crew scheduling system was using updated software from GE. The pilot and flight attendant unions beg to differ and insist the company simply refused to invest in upgraded technology. But it did spend $5.6 billion on stock buybacks. If you consider results not related to stock price, Jordan’s mea culpa clangs hollow like an empty steel drum. And the stock price ain’t all that good, either.
I am old enough to remember the dawn of airline deregulation. I covered it early in my newspaper career. It would, proponents said, democratize air travel by promoting competition, lowering fares and encouraging innovation. This all turned out to be true, but it also ushered in the era of cattle car flying with gracefully eroding customer service. Don’t like 29-inch seat pitch and paying for use of overhead space? Thank deregulation, but at least you have fare competition and choices, even if many of them share the same lousy features.
There’s painful cognitive dissonance here. Things were not always rosy during the regulated period. Airlines still went bankrupt, schedules slipped, bags got lost, crews were timed out or out of place, but at least you could get a decent lunch on board and you didn’t have to stare at someone’s butt crack because no one would think to wear a running suit to fly to Chicago. Overall, the regulated system was more civilized.
Was government more competent then? Maybe. But companies—not just airlines—weren’t as rapacious then as they are now; the age of the stockholder as king to the customer’s serf was still more than a decade away. If we didn’t like the government meddling in airline transportation, we at least accepted it for the benefits it bestowed.
Now, it has become an absolute fetish to decry any kind of government regulation or oversight of business. Of course, we get something for that, like an Apple or a Microsoft or a Tesla, but also an Enron, a Lehman Brothers, an FTX and yes, a Southwest Airlines. If they beach you for five days and lose your luggage or strip you of half your life savings, well, sorry about that. You signed the waiver.
Southwest’s board has evidently deemed it prudent to keep Bob Jordon on the job with a salary reported to be around $9 million, so if there was accountability for the Christmas meltdown, the C-suite so far has dodged it. But what about the FAA? The agency’s lack of a resilient NOTAMs system with a backup essentially shut down the $100-billion U.S. airline system for almost half a day.
Reason? The FAA blames personnel not following procedures but Laurie Garrow, a specialist in aviation at Georgia Tech, told USA Today that aging tech may be the smoking gun. “Similar to what Southwest saw last month with difficulties in using an antiquated system to handle a major weather disruption to the system, it’s highly likely that the FAA saw this problem exacerbated because they were running on older technologies,” Garrow said. If heads have rolled, they apparently missed the baskets because so far, we see no accountability there, either.
What’s to be done, the world wonders? Like it or not, the government has to stir the drink here. In my view, the Department of Transportation needs to enforce more aggressive rules on terms of carriage related to refunds and reimbursements and baggage handling. It has been reported that millions of dollars in refunds due to passengers have been delayed. DOT needs to enforce fines for these service refusals so there’s at least some accountability. And make the fines substantial. And somehow, some way, give the customer the choice of a voucher or cash.
Expecting the free enterprise system to magically correct this is sheer delusion. As long as companies like Southwest see stock buybacks as more important than infrastructure investment, they’ll continue to be a beat or two behind their customer’s needs. Delta, American and United recovered quickly, but one Delta pilot I know said they got lucky.
As for the NOTAMs fiasco, well, good luck to us all. Maybe the GAO can wade into it and make a fair determination of what really went wrong. If it was aging technology, I suspect the federal government’s byzantine acquisition regulations might somehow be involved. Getting congress on the case is almost too depressing to contemplate, but that’s what it might take.
Somehow loosening the coupling of NOTAMs distribution from airline dispatch might be another place to start. It’s no kept secret that Robert Sumwalt was right. Nobody pays attention to the damn things anyway, but their importance punches above their weight because of statutory stranglehold by international agreement. So change the rules. This is a persistent weakness in the internationally agreed-to rules regarding passenger carriage. If Europe invests in state of the art NOTAMs distribution and the U.S. limps along, the entire system is hobbled. And speaking of money, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian thinks the FAA needs more of it to throw at fixing NOTAMs.
I’m beginning to wonder if the modern transportation grid has become just too complex, too chaotic and with too little reserve capacity and management expertise and with investment requirements totally out of balance with needs to avoid periodic collapses in the face of extreme weather events that are more normal now than novel.
Lately, a 100-knot Skyhawk is looking attractive again, even if it takes a week to get there. Or maybe Greyhound.