The obscure system that personifies the need for modernization

The NOTAM messaging system that grounded all U.S. flights cries out for modernization.

Unless you are a pilot, you had probably never heard of Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM), the system that recently brought U.S. aviation to a standstill for the first time since 9/11. More accurately, the crash of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NOTAM system meant no plane could legally leave a runway until the system was back up.

The U.S. Code of Regulations section 14, part 91.103 says so.

All you could glean from mass media was that NOTAM is a system for warning pilots of possible hazards at the destinations to which they are about to fly.

If you imagined a NOTAM as a succinct message, like, “Runway 52-S at Podunk Airfield is closed because of pavement work” you’d have no idea of the reality of NOTAM. I didn’t until I did a little digging.

In reality, NOTAM is the epitome of needed but old technology screaming for modernization. I mean, what modern system requires manual fiddling of databases and backup synchronization such that a goof stops all flight?

A small industry has sprouted around frustration with NOTAM. There’s even a web site entitled “Death to NOTAM.” NOTAM is the topic of scorn, ridicule and umbrage in pilots’ forums. Whole classes of software have grown commercially for the purpose of rendering NOTAM usable to  actual airpeople about to invoke takeoff power and pull the stick back.

By the FAA’s own account, NOTAM dates to 1947. It appears to still use notation from the telegraph era, before the 1963 standardization of ASCII, or American Standard Code for Information Interchange.

And in fact the FAA does have a modernization plan for NOTAM. At an undated web page, the agency states, “The FAA is modernizing the NOTAM system to improve the delivery of safety critical information to aviation stakeholders.” The agency also states, “Publishing NOTAMs in digital format makes it easier for developers of flight planning tools to convert NOTAMs into plain language and visualize them on charts and maps, which results in products that makes it easier for pilots to find the information that they need.” NOTAM even has its own application programming interface.

But is really fundamental modernization that recognizes cloud-hosted, distributed, graphical computing in the same way that the long-in-gestation Next Generation Air Transportation moves away from 1950s era radar?

The back-and-forth about NOTAM seems to center on three problems.

One, the character set itself, which renders NOTAMs in all capitals. This is combined with seemingly endless initialized words and acronyms. It all comes through in single spaced displays or printouts. As the FAA explains, an out-of-service radar would be announced in this way: !IAD MM.NNN IAD SCV SMR U/S YY06082230-YY06302200. Even I can tell they’re talking about Dulles International Airport and that there’s a date-and-time range in the NOTAM. But in 2023 there’s got to be a better way to communicate such information.

Why, when communication is so critical, must the word “closed” still be abbreviated as “CLSD,” or “Open” as OPN?”

Two, NOTAMs for a given flight contain loads of trivial information not really connected with the safety of a given flight. On forums, pilots joke about NOTAMs mentioning one-inch ruts on the side of a taxiway, a non-standard sign next to a runway, a flock of birds likely to be gone hours later.

Asked if he reads the NOTAM for a flight, one pilot answered, “Especially when the third taxiway light on taxiway G is out. How will I navigate?”

Another said, “I skim through and try to find the important ones.” Said another, “Oh s—, all the runways are closed in Miami?! Wait no that’s at 1am next June the 29th, nevermind.”

Three, the sheer volume of a NOTAM. For a long flight,  the crew typically receives a NOTAM running scores or even a hundred pages. One pilot commented on the use of software from a company called Foreflight or from Garmin: “Foreflight does a good job at isolating important things (like the destination airport being closed) from chaff (like an oak sapling is sprouting on an unlighted crane 5 miles off the final approach path) by organizing NOTAMs into sections (departure, destination, enroute, etc). I usually read all the ones that matter…”

Whatever its shortcomings, the cryptography and volume of NOTAM doesn’t appear to have caused any safety problems. But subtle dangers in complex systems remain potential until they don’t. Luckily air crews have other ways of communicating with distant end points to find out what is really going on.

Many years ago, a dear uncle, who loved fast cars, motorcycles and boats, learned to fly. Characteristically, he had a hot plane — a V-tail Beech Bonanza. It was a 1967 and, as a matter of fact, is still registered and certified. I flew in it a couple of times long ago. Edgy as he might have been on the ground, my uncle was scrupulously careful in the air. Once he remarked offhandedly, “Things happen fast up there.” Seems like they need to happen fast on the ground too.


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