FAA Computer Outage Delays Thousands of Flights

January 13, 2023

Last week, we looked at how bad weather and an overloaded scheduling system led to disastrous consequences for Southwest Airlines as it canceled more than 13,000 flights over the holidays. But while this disaster could at least be partly blamed on a rough winter storm, airports had no such excuse on Wednesday when a computer outage led to another massive wave of cancellations and delays. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a damaged database file corrupted the agency’s system that alerts pilots about safety issues. As a result, the FAA delayed more than 9,000 flights and canceled 1,300 more as it struggled to bring its computers back online.

Although experts say that the FAA’s systems are usually dependable, there have nevertheless been incidents in the past that suggested the agency needed to implement some updates. Still, no previous problems seemed to foretell a disaster on this scale. “Periodically there have been local issues here or there, but this is pretty significant historically,” said aviation consultant Tim Campbell, who added that the FAA’s systems “are old mainframe systems that are generally reliable, but they are out of date.” The FAA has long faced criticism for its lax oversight of the airline industry, such as the 2018 and 2019 crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max planes that stemmed from another computer error. 

But even if the FAA had the will to make improvements to its increasingly antiquated systems, analysts say that it lacks the funds to make much of a difference. In 2022 the agency’s budget sat at $18.5 billion, which is less money than the FAA had in 2004 after adjusting for inflation. “This is an agency that has been chronically and critically underfunded, not for years, but for decades,” said William J. McGee, an aviation specialist at the American Economic Liberties Project. Legislators could potentially overhaul the FAA this year as the agency’s most recent authorization will expire soon. Still, some in the industry worry that many consumers will hold a negative view of air travel if these major delays continue to occur. 


  1. Do you think the FAA should receive more funding to update its computer systems? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think the recent waves of delays and cancellations will give many consumers a negative view of air travel? 

Source: Niraj Chokshi and Mark Walker, “F.A.A. Outage Highlights Fragility of the Aviation System,” The New York Times, January 11, 2023. Photo by Mark Hodson.