Diverse Incompetence in the Skies
Is the FAA’s top priority aviation or affirmative employment programs?
Last December, the Federal Aviation Agency announced that what had been called its Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system, an in-flight messaging program to alert pilots of hazards and air conditions, would be rechristened the “Notice to Air Missions” system, which it said was a “more applicable term” that was “inclusive of all aviators and missions.” Yesterday, due to an early-morning failure of the NOTAM system, tens of thousands of Americans were marooned in airports across the country.
An early morning tweet from the FAA revealed that the entire National Airspace System had been affected by the outage. The FAA would not be able to communicate with pilots about hazards that had developed after flights had taken off, which presented an obvious security risk. Flights in the air were declared safe to land, but all other flights into, out of, and within the United States were grounded until about 9:00 a.m.
CNN reported that the outage was caused by a corrupt file in the FAA database that officials had noticed Tuesday night but had decided to resolve by rebooting the system Wednesday morning when, according to the report, “it would least disrupt air travel.” It proved quite disruptive: By about 12:30 p.m., more than 7,300 flights had been delayed, and more than 2,500 had been cancelled, according to FlightAware.
Yesterday’s delays and cancellations came on the heels of a particularly rough Christmas season for the airline industry, with Southwest Airlines canceling more than 16,700 flights in the final ten days of December, according to the New York Times.
In the wake of the outage and a miserable few weeks for the airline industry, the relevant authorities vaguely signaled their alarm. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted that he had “been in touch with FAA” about the outage, and said the agency was “working to resolve this issue swiftly and safely.” President Biden asked Buttigieg to report back on the cause of the outage. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the FAA was “working aggressively to get to the bottom of the root causes for the system outage so that it does not happen again.”
The incompetence of the Transportation secretary and the ongoing circus in American air travel prompted Representative Nancy Mace to introduce a bill that would require Pete Buttigieg and his staff to fly commercial until the Southwest and FAA crises are resolved. “[U]ntil the issues with Southwest and the FAA are investigated and resolved, he and his staff should be required to fly commercial just live every other American,” Mace said.
Nancy Mace is no expert on air travel, and I could not even begin to imagine how the NOTAM infrastructure was built or how it is maintained. But we pay a lot of people a lot of money to monitor our airspace, and it is not too much to ask that they keep the skies safe and the planes running on time. The fact that all air travel in the United States was ground to a halt by a single corrupted file in the FAA database is unacceptable in a first-world country, not just for the inconvenience to travelers, but because of the obvious national security risks.
It would be one thing if the FAA were pulling in the best and the brightest, but the agency has given us reason to think it is less than fully focused on recruiting the most qualified candidates to monitor the skies. A post on its website notes that the agency’s mission “involves securing the skies of a diverse nation” and requires the agency to maintain a workforce that “reflects the nation that it serves.” It has a full-time officer focused on hiring people with “severe intellectual disability and psychiatric disability.” It operates a “Hispanic Employment Program” and participates in federal “affirmative employment programs.” The FAA may have a workforce that “reflects the nation that it serves,” but it apparently doesn’t have one capable of ensuring the nation’s entire air fleet isn’t ground to a halt by a routine computer error.
And the FAA is just one example of broader institutional decline. Most Americans basically trust their institutions: They let pilots carry them halfway across the country in flying metal boxes, willingly put themselves under surgeons’ knives, assume public schools will teach their kids algebra, and expect the electrical company knows how to work a turbine generator.
Leaders at every level are dismantling the infrastructure that makes that kind of trust possible. They are defining down success in high schools and colleges and removing standardized test requirements in the name of equity. They are hiring teachers, doctors, pilots, and apparently FAA agents at least in part on the basis of race. They are rearing young people as abolitionists, taught to tear down rather than steward the systems into which they’re entering.
It is not much of a problem when those kids are in school. It is more of a problem when they take over your H.R. department, and even more of a problem when they run your company, your kid’s school, or the Federal Aviation Agency.
For now, flights will be delayed and cancelled. Thousands of Americans will miss weddings and funerals. Ten years from now, when the iconoclasts are running the entire federal government, we might look back on the FAA mishap as a canary in the coal mine.
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