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FAA identifies contractor involved in outage that led to ground stop

Two incidents within a three-week period were the latest to cause cancellations and delays for travelers

A Southwest jet lands at Chicago Midway International Airport on Dec. 27, 2022. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
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The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday identified the contractor involved in the outage of a safety bulletin system that led to a national ground stop, and said it would bar personnel directly involved from accessing agency buildings and systems during an investigation.

The announcement came one day after the Transportation Department released new details of its investigation into flight disruptions at Southwest Airlines that left more than 1 million travelers stranded over the holidays. The two high-profile incidents within a three-week period were the latest to cause scores of cancellations and delays for travelers amid a pandemic-era travel boom.

In the most recent problem for air travelers, an outage of the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system began when contract workers inadvertently deleted data, leading to a nationwide halt to air traffic on Jan. 11 for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The FAA on Thursday identified Bethesda-based Spatial Front as the contractor behind the mishap. The company indicated it had more than 50 staff members at FAA offices working on more than 90 “mission critical” systems, including the NOTAM system, according to an archived version of its website. That information had been removed from its site as of Thursday morning.

Spatial Front said in a statement that it was “fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation.”

Acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen briefed House members Thursday on the status of the investigation but offered few new details. After the closed-door meeting, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the cause of the outage was “just a screw-up.”

Southwest didn’t heed calls to upgrade tech before meltdown, unions say

Even so, some members said they weren’t certain how a deleted file could take down the system.

“I don’t understand how trained people can do that,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Nolen declined to comment after the briefing.

The FAA’s struggles followed an earlier airline disruption in late December, when Southwest canceled more than 16,700 flights over an 11-day span. Federal regulators, who have launched an investigation into the matter, said Thursday they are examining whether executives at Southwest misled customers by selling tickets for flights they knew the carrier couldn’t operate.

Asked about the probe during the company’s Thursday earnings call, Andrew Watterson, the carrier’s chief commercial officer, said Southwest was fully staffed for the holidays and there are no indications the schedule was “out of whack.”

Southwest on Thursday announced that the operational breakdown would cost the company $800 million in related expenses, echoing earlier estimates. As a result, the air carrier reported a $220 million net loss in the final quarter of 2022, surprising some analysts who expected the airline would turn a profit despite the problems. Executives said the company also doesn’t expect to post a profit this quarter because of the December cancellations, which it estimated could cost up to $350 million more.

The carrier’s report of a quarterly loss came on the same day that competitors American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines said that they were profitable in the fourth quarter.

Southwest chief executive Bob Jordan said the “historic level” of last-minute flight cancellations during the days around Christmas overwhelmed the company’s systems for scheduling and staffing flights.

“We disrupted thousands and thousands of customers and really made a mess for our employees and customers, and I can’t apologize enough for that,” he said. “At the end of the day, that kind of disruption cannot happen again.”

Jordan and other executives outlined steps the carrier is taking to avoid a repeat, saying the carrier will spend $1.3 billion on technology in 2023, an increase over what it spent the previous year. It has hired an outside firm to review the incident and said a report should be complete within weeks.

Jordan said Southwest is cooperating with lawmakers, who will hold hearings on the cancellations, and with the Department of Transportation as the agency conducts its review.

Southwest Airlines returns to normal operations as investigations loom

Meanwhile, aviation safety issues and corporate accountability of another sort were the focus Thursday in a federal courthouse in Fort Worth.

Boeing was publicly arraigned on a charge that it conspired to defraud the United States over the safety of its 737 Max jets — something the company had avoided when it signed a deferred settlement agreement with the Justice Department in January 2021.

Thursday’s court appearance was mandated by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor after a protracted and ongoing legal fight led by relatives of the 346 people killed when a faulty automation system forced down Max planes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. Some of those family members addressed Boeing and the judge in court.

Family members are asking the judge to require Boeing to meet three “conditions of release” in connection with the arraignment: that Boeing commit no new crimes, that Boeing’s safety and ethics practices be subject to a judicial monitor and that details of what Boeing has done to improve safety as part of the deferred prosecution agreement be released to the victims and public “to assure that the efforts are effective,” according to court filings.

Boeing must publicly face fraud charge in 737 Max deaths, judge says

Boeing pleaded not guilty Thursday.

“We are deeply sorry to all who lost loved ones on Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Flight 302, and greatly respect those who expressed their views at the hearing today,” the company said in a statement. Boeing said it has made important safety improvements and is “committed to continuing to comply scrupulously with all of our obligations” under the agreement with the Justice Department.

In an earlier court filing, Boeing said although the families faced “unspeakable losses,” they are not entitled to overturn the agreement. “Boeing was and is entitled to rely on that contract,” the company said.

The families of those killed told the court, in person and through written submissions, what they had lost. Abiodun Oluremi Bashua, who had served as a Nigerian diplomat and was killed in the Ethiopia crash, was described as the nucleus of his family.

“The gaping hole left behind has stripped Amen — Abiodun’s youngest son, who was only 4 years old at the time of the crash — of seeing his father walk through the front door of their home every evening,” family members wrote. “Amen will never again crawl into bed to lie between his parents.”