'Any system is vulnerable at any given time': Airline security expert on nationwide ground stoppage

Flights gradually resumed at Orlando International Airport (OIA) on Wednesday after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted the nationwide ground stop due to a system failure.  

The FAA said in its latest update that "normal air traffic operations are resuming gradually across the United States following an overnight outage to the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that provides safety information to flight crews. The ground stop has been lifted."

That system alerts air traffic control and pilots of daily hazards and conditions on their routes. 

"This one provides short-term information about runway closures or bird hazards," said Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, an airline security expert at the University of Illinois, "Construction obstacles when a plane is landing or taking off." 

All domestic flights were grounded until around 9 a.m. this morning and the impact rippled through airlines. 

By 3 p.m. on Wednesday, data system FlightAware tracked more than 7,000 flight delays to, from, or within the U.S. and over 1,100 flight cancelations. It tracked 415 flight delays at OIA and 25 cancelations.

The FAA said it worked through a system reload to resume operations, but it's still not clear what caused the issue. The White House Secretary tweeted that there is no evidence of a cyber-attack at this point – but the Biden Administration has asked the U.S. Transportation Department and FAA to investigate. 

"This was an inwardly focused system. There are walls around it to protect it, but any system is vulnerable at any given time," said Dr. Jacobson, "Just seems to be a system failure whether hardware or software - we don't know yet." 

This is the second time in the last month that flights in Florida have been impacted by an FAA system issue. 

Back on January 2nd - the FAA slowed the traffic volume into Florida's airspace because of an air traffic computer issue. At that time it was the E-RAM system – which air traffic controllers use to handle en route traffic. 

It's also not clear what caused that issue. 

We spoke with one captain who is concerned we could see more impacts to travel the more we rely solely on computers and don't have proper backup measures. 

"We have this idea that computers can do everything, and they really can't," said Captain Shem Malmquist, "We've designed it to be so dependent. Don't have any good alternatives when it stops working." 

As for your travel today – airline security experts believe we could see delays into early evening and tonight.v Dr. Jacobson says backlogs have a ripple effect. Airports had to get delayed flights out safely and shift schedules for the rest of the day in coordination with other airports across the country.