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Flights were grounded across the U.S. as the FAA scrambled to fix a system outage

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

The U.S. aviation sector is slowly returning to normal this morning after a computer outage caused disruptions nationwide.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all U.S. departing flights yesterday morning for 90 minutes so the issue could be fixed. The outage of a preflight safety notification system called NOTAM forced airlines to cancel more than 1,300 flights and delay nearly 10,000 more. The FAA says it's investigating what happened. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called it another challenging day for U.S. aviation.

BROWN: Oh, yeah. In fact, to learn more about what happened, we're joined by reporter Leslie Josephs. She covers airlines for CNBC. Leslie, I'm sure folks who aren't flying this week are happy. Have authorities discovered what caused the system to go down?

LESLIE JOSEPHS: They do have a rough idea of what caused it, and it's linked back to this corrupted database file that appeared to be getting uploaded, and then they thought the issue was fixed. All of this goes back to Tuesday afternoon, you know, more than 12 hours before passengers started to really feel the impact. They thought it was fixed. Then they had to go back. They realized they had the same problem, and then they essentially decided to pull the plug and start the system over again.

BROWN: And this is quite an old system, right? It goes back to the '50s.

JOSEPHS: It does. I mean, they are in the process of modernizing it. The issue is with this bad file. And if you've ever tried to attach something to an email that, you know, maybe it was a corrupted file and you just kept hitting the same wall and the person receiving the email wasn't able to open it...

BROWN: Right.

JOSEPHS: Their backup system was getting the same bad data. That's what we've heard. So they were unable to address it. And, you know, this is one of those cases where redundancy didn't help them at all.

BROWN: Yeah. Have we ever seen a tech error like this before?

JOSEPHS: I certainly haven't in my five years on the beat, talked to pilots who said they've never seen it in decades. So it is very, very unusual. It's also unusual what the FAA did, which was essentially shut down the air system, prevent any planes from taking off. Usually you see this in, you know, pockets when there's bad weather or, you know, one airline has their own IT outage, and they want to slow down their arrivals. So this is extremely unusual. Like you said, it only lasted about 90 minutes, but the residual delay - you know, a lot of these planes had nowhere to park. So this lasted all day. About 10,000 flights in total were delayed yesterday.

BROWN: My goodness. More of a inconvenience issue than a safety issue because no planes took off, but we do recall Southwest and its big meltdown over the holidays. Now, do these two events suggest maybe a bigger problem within aviation technology?

JOSEPHS: Well, the technology that underpins the aviation system - and we have the most complex and busiest air system in the world.

BROWN: Right.

JOSEPHS: It is old, and it does need to be updated. It's just hard to update it. You need funding for the FAA, of course. You know, they need more money. They need more people to do that - certainly same thing with airlines. But it takes a long time. It's not something that you could, you know, just download a new OS and there you are. So, you know, FAA - it's also a political issue, and it's a big question of funding. You know, Southwest is dealing with their own issues - different platforms, but again, this - these issues seem to come up again and again.

BROWN: Yeah. Leslie Josephs, thank you for joining us. She's an airline reporter for CNBC.

JOSEPHS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.