'Unintentionally deleted files' prompted nationwide grounding of US flights

The FAA said the issue occurred while personnel were working "to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database."

 A plane sits on the airfield as flight cancellations mount during a cold weather front as a weather phenomenon known as a bomb cyclone hits the Upper Midwest, at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 22, 2022. (photo credit: MATT MARTON/REUTERS)
A plane sits on the airfield as flight cancellations mount during a cold weather front as a weather phenomenon known as a bomb cyclone hits the Upper Midwest, at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 22, 2022.
(photo credit: MATT MARTON/REUTERS)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Thursday a preliminary review found that contract personnel "unintentionally deleted files" disrupting a key computer system and prompting a nationwide groundstop on Jan. 11 that disrupted more than 11,000 flights.

The FAA said the issue occurred while personnel were working "to correct synchronization between the live primary database and a backup database." The FAA said it "has so far found no evidence of a cyber-attack or malicious intent."

FAA acting Administrator Billy Nolen plans to hold a virtual briefing Friday for lawmakers and staff, who have sought details of what went wrong with a pilot messaging database that led to the first nationwide grounding of departing flights since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The January 11 computer outage

Last week, the agency said the computer outage of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) messaging system was caused by a procedural error related to a corrupted data file. The NOTAM system provides pilots, flight crews and other users of US airspace with critical safety notices.

 A Delta plane sits at the International Terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in March 2020. (credit: CURTIS COMPTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS) A Delta plane sits at the International Terminal at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in March 2020. (credit: CURTIS COMPTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS)

The FAA said it has made necessary repairs to the system "and has taken steps to make the pilot message system "more resilient."

The system outage occurred on Jan. 10, but the FAA groundstop was not issued until the following morning.

Last week, a group of more than 120 US lawmakers told the FAA that the computer outage was "completely unacceptable" and demanded the agency explain how it will avoid future incidents.

Senate Commerce Committee staff have also asked the FAA to answer questions on the outage, including, "Why were airlines put in a position where they could have the option of choosing to operate when the NOTAM system was down?"