FAA Outage: System Downtime Puts an Entire Industry on Hold
January 17, 2023

Pete Goldin

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"The US aviation sector was struggling to return to normal following a nationwide ground stop imposed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) early Wednesday over a computer issue that forced a 90-minute halt to all US departing flights," Reuters reported on January 11.

The breakdown showed how much American air travel depends on the computer system that generates alerts called NOTAMs — or Notice to Air Missions, Associated Press reported. The system broke down late Tuesday and was not fixed until midmorning Wednesday. The FAA took the rare step of preventing any planes from taking off for a time, and the cascading chaos led to more than 1,300 flight cancellations and 9,000 delays by early evening on the East Coast, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

The FAA said a corrupted file affected both the primary and backup systems.

Speaking of tech problems impacting the aviation industry, this happened only a couple weeks after Southwest Airlines experienced a meltdown during the holidays. National Public Radion reported: "By all accounts Southwest was using badly outdated computer systems to manage that complicated system."

But from the IT Ops perspective, the real take away from this news is not specifically about the FAA or the airline industry. Every organization faces this same concern every day — keeping systems updated and up and running. The alternative can be disastrous.

Many, if not most, companies in the US could not take a hit of this caliber and still maintain business as usual

"Today's FAA outage underscores the great need for modernized infrastructure, especially within organizations that operate on antiquated systems," said Fred Koopmans, BigPanda CPO. "The impact to travelers is obvious in this case, but it's imperative to also consider the internal mechanics the FAA will now have to address to recover from this."

Koopmans continued, "The average cost of a significant IT outage, according to 2022 research, is $6,912/minute or $414,720/hour – that's a $7.4M price tag for the FAA based on reports that issues arose at 3pm ET on Tuesday. Many, if not most, companies in the US could not take a hit of this caliber and still maintain business as usual."

"The outdated SaaS systems that many airlines rely upon are difficult to operate and run using older coding languages that few people still know how to use efficiently," explained Peter Pezaris, SVP of Strategy & User Experience at New Relic. "This means that when issues occur, they can be difficult to locate and fix — especially in a timely manner. Beyond that, they are also susceptible to cascading events, when a system fails and goes on to cause a ripple effect. As companies scale and the average tech stack becomes more complex, the risk of outages only rises. Not only is the IT team trying to get the system back up and running, but they are also fielding what can be a massive influx of requests ranging from internal stakeholders up to the Board level or customer complaints."

"Minimizing the time to understand the issue is critical," Pezaris added. "What makes this difficult is that most companies have observability data scattered everywhere. Observability unifies an organization's data and can provide airlines with a 360-degree view of their entire IT stacks, allowing engineers to detect and resolve issues before they impact flights."

Recently published data from New Relic's 2022 Observability Forecast shows that 45% of respondents experience an outage with a high business impact once per week or more — and 29% of those outages take an hour or more to resolve.

Pete Goldin is Editor and Publisher of APMdigest
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