“Notams are a bunch of garbage,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said last week, at the board’s probable-cause meeting about last year’s close call in San Francisco. “The Notam system is really messed up,” he continued. “There are 10 pages of Notams [for the Air Canada flight] … and [the runway closure] is on page 8 of the dispatch release … and they are written in some kind of language that only a computer programmer would really understand.” This week, Chairman Sumwalt told AVweb, “There is a definite need to improve our Notam system and I am optimistic that, given the Board’s recommendations on this issue, some ingenious software developer will come up with a very low-cost solution.”
Sumwalt added, “Today we have iPads and other tablets that have tremendous capability that can help us. That said, our recommendation to FAA is for them to establish a group of human-factors experts to study the issue and develop solutions. That will take time.” In its final report, the NTSB asks the FAA to “create and publish guidance on best practices to organize, prioritize, and present this information in a manner that optimizes pilot review and retention of relevant information; and work with air carriers and service providers to implement solutions that are aligned with the guidance.”
Meanwhile, many GA pilots depend on their flight-planning apps to help them sort through the FAA information, but that’s not a perfect solution—some pilots don’t use them, and sometimes important information still gets missed in the translation. “Why can they not write Notams in plain English?” asked one commenter on a GA message board this week. “Many Notams would benefit from being graphical … Information overload is a major issue … It takes me a lot longer than 20 minutes to go through the Notams for just a local flight,” others said.
“I do a lot of long cross-country flights, and there are hundreds of Notams,” another GA pilot told AVweb. “It’s hard to pick through them all and find what you need.” On one recent flight, he said, he reviewed Notams but missed one that said an airport where he planned to land for fuel was closed. “I didn’t catch it,” he said. Luckily, he overflew the airport before landing and saw the bulldozers blocking the runway.
Sumwalt’s remarks, while dramatic, are not news to the GA community. AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli griped about the Notam system in a 2016 blog. Sen. James Inhofe called for improvements to the system in his 2015 Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2. The bill directed the FAA to “develop a prioritization system organizing Notams by urgency and importance, as well as include the effective duration of temporary flight restrictions. This ensures the most relevant and important information reaches the pilot.”
Sumwalt said FAA change may not be the only solution to the problem. “I personally believe innovative organizations can create solutions faster than it would take for FAA to react,” he told AVweb. “Look what happened once the iPad and other low-cost tablets were introduced—innovative companies developed some really wonderful apps that significantly enhance safety. Why can’t the same thing happen here to make the Notam system much more user friendly?”
That change won’t relieve pilots of their duties. “It is essential that pilots maintain vigilance,” Sumwalt wrote. “However, from accident after accident, incident after incident, we have seen that sometimes pilots miss important details. That’s why I believe we need a system to serve as a layer of redundancy to alert the pilot if he or she is about to miss something important, such as attempting to take off or land on the wrong surface.”