Lawmakers call for hearings over FAA outage and air travel issues

Members of Congress are calling for hearings into the air travel chaos caused by a Federal Aviation Administration system outage Wednesday, as well as issues that continue to bedevil travelers facing flight delays and cancellations.

The computer system that went down, Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM), provides a list of potential problems for pilots. They can include runway construction or closures, lighting issues and a host of other potential hazards.

The U.S. NOTAMs office is located in Warrenton, Virginia, at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center.

But it’s not clear exactly where the problem originated in the online system, which used to be distributed by phone. A phone system is still used as a backup, but became overwhelmed Wednesday morning.

“We need to get FAA officials, air traffic controllers and others to come before Congress and explain what this problem was,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va..

Kaine said he’s interested in knowing whether the issue is primarily technical or broader.

“Is it better management, is it better investment?” he said.

Members of both political parties in Congress frequently fly, and they have taken a strong interest in issues involving air travelers.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said her panel will investigate the FAA outage as lawmakers prepare to consider the agency’s reauthorization legislation.

“The No. 1 priority is safety,” she said Wednesday.

Kaine also pointed out that air travel has picked up considerably since the height of the pandemic. He wonders if that will continue to be a problem as airlines try to address various issues.

“Many of the airlines were saying that they didn’t expect to see post-COVID travel return to what it had been until about 2024,” Kaine said. “I think the evidence shows it’s coming back a lot faster than that. So maybe the airlines weren’t ready for it to bounce back so fast.”

Kaine also referred to the travel meltdown suffered by Southwest Airlines customers over the holidays as another reason to keep up congressional oversight.

“The relevant committees in (both chambers of Congress) need to dig in,” he said.

Cantwell has also said her committee will follow up on what happened with Southwest Airlines, looking into the causes of flight disruptions and its impact on consumers.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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