Top of Mind Thursday – January 12, 2023: This Won’t Fly

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Yesterday, for the second time in a little over 2 weeks, air travel in the US ground to a halt.

This time, the problem was not weather-related, but due to the failure of FAA NOTAM software–an application that informs pilots of real-time restrictions and flight hazards. Without this software, every flight into and out of the US was grounded.

How did this happen? Someone inadvertently overwrote a key piece of code while conducting software maintenance–causing the entire system to fail.

These things happen all the time, but usually there’s a backup system, or some sort of redundancy that kicks in. Not the case here–perhaps because this particular system dates back to the 1940s and has yet to be modernized and updated. Instead, everything stopped.

It’s a bit frightening to think that a key piece of our transportation infrastructure could be brought down so easily. Imagine what might happen in the case of an actual cyberattack!

The FAA software in question is way overdue for replacement–as is the Southwest software that caused such a mess over the holidays. It’s logical to expect both of these organizations will now be prioritizing fixing these particular situations.

But how many other time bombs lay out there in other organizations and critical systems? Do we have to wait until another key system crashes to find out?

The only thing more expensive than modernizing critical infrastructure is what happens when you don’t.


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