That Massive Air Travel Outage Was All Because Of One Contractor

Have you ever accidentally deleted an important file while moving things around? Imagine that, but you also disable air traffic control across the country.

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It’s very pretty, yes, but it’s not going anywhere
It’s very pretty, yes, but it’s not going anywhere
Photo: Aristide Economopoulos/Bloomberg (Getty Images)

We’ve all been there. You’re organizing some files on your computer, moving things into new folders, when — shit, where did that one go? You could’ve sworn you never touched the Delete key, but your 2020 tax returns are suddenly nowhere to be found. Ah well, at least it wasn’t an important file.

But what if it had been? What if, rather than an old tax document, you’d instead accidentally deleted files needed to run the FAA’s Notice To Air Missions software? Instead of shrugging your shoulders, you’d likely be scrambling to fix your mistake — knowing that no plane in the U.S. is taking off until you do. Well, dear reader, that’s likely not a situation you’ll ever encounter. Unless, of course, you’re the unnamed contractor who did just that last week.

Image for article titled That Massive Air Travel Outage Was All Because Of One Contractor
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg (Getty Images)

The FAA has determined the cause of last week’s nationwide flight outage, and it’s as simple a case of human error as you ever saw. A contractor, working to synchronize a working FAA database with a backup, accidentally deleted files that were critical for the function of the NOTAM pilot communication system.

The files were eventually recovered — keep good backups, kids — and flights were able to resume without rebuilding the entire computer system. The explanation, however, allows the FAA to breathe a sigh of relief: It was a simple mistake, rather than a cyberattack or espionage, that took down our planes.


As the FAA works to modernize its systems, hoping to prevent issues stemming from dated hardware or rogue military operators setting up their own ATCs in churches, these sorts of dumb, human issues are always a risk. After this total shutdown, however, it’s likely they’ll try to keep a few more backups.