The FAA experienced an unpreceded outage Wednesday morning, delaying or canceling flights throughout the country. Though the White House has reported that a cyber-attack is not suspected, it does raise serious questions about the competence of the Department of Transportation and Secretary Pete Buttigieg after a series of transportation blunders since 2021.

When it comes to air travel, the Federal Aviation Administration relies on the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system to keep the skies orderly and guard against disaster. The system provides pilots with key information regarding safety updates and the conditions that could affect their flights. It’s different than Air Traffic Control, which keeps planes a safe distance from each other and manages flight schedules.

When asked about the outage and the possibility of a cyber-attack, President Joe Biden said, “We don’t know.”

At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, an American Airlines hub, there were 406 flight delays and 118 cancellations by 12:20 p.m. Raleigh-Durham International Airport was experiencing something similar, with 105 delays and 16 cancellations.

Though Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is working to address the issue and flights have resumed, the delays follow a familiar pattern that has developed over this last year.

The CEO of the U.S. Travel Association Geoff Freeman said, “Today’s FAA catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades. Americans deserve an end-to-end travel experience that is seamless and secure. And our nation’s economy depends on a best-in-class air travel system.”

I’ve traveled throughout the world, including on some rather sketchy airlines. Perhaps the most worrying was flying in a small local airline in Africa, where the captain handed out water bottles before the short in-country flight. I made sure to say an extra prayer before we took off. I also experienced an aborted take-off in South America due to a navigation fail, which was rather disconcerting.  

All that to say, I expect failures and a bit of chaos in some parts of the world, but America should be leading the world in airline safety and reliability. To have such a catastrophic failure of the NOTAM system is concerning but joins a long list of transportation failures this year.

Just a couple of weeks before, Southwest Airlines had a system wide meltdown, which resulted in 17,000 cancelled flights around the holidays.

The railroad unions were also very close to striking this fall, right before the holidays and potentially impacting Christmas shipments.

There was also the baby formula crisis 2022, where parents were left scrambling and sometimes crossing the border into Mexico in order to stock up on baby formula.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg also criticized the airline industry after a series of flight delays and cancellations over the summer of 2022, which I had the misfortune of being caught up in while trying to get to London. Due to a flight cancellation I arrived in the country over 24 hours behind schedule and was very close to missing the historic Platinum Jubilee and last public appearance of Queen Elizabeth II.

But the worst was probably the massive supply chain collapse in the fall of 2021, that resulted in ships with merchandise and essential materials languishing in some of America’s ports. 

So, where was Secretary Buttigieg? For a bit there wasn’t much news, until it revealedthat Secretary Buttigieg was on paternity leave while stores had bare shelves, prices surged and ports clogged up.

Supply and transportation meltdowns make the United States look less like a first world power, and more like a developing country, vulnerable to the slightest market and shipping disruptions.

The push to electric transportation options, like electric vehicles and trucks mandates in states like North Carolina, will likely only exacerbate the problem.