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Planes are back in the sky but what is going on with U.S. aviation?


For more on yesterday's systems failure and what it says about the state of our aviation system, we're turning to Mike Whitaker. He's a former deputy administrator at the FAA and is the current chief commercial officer at Supernal, which is Hyundai Motor Group's air taxi company. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE WHITAKER: Good morning.

FADEL: OK. So what was your reaction when you heard about this system outage and all flights being grounded?

WHITAKER: Well, it's always a pretty dramatic thing when you ground all flights. So obviously, there was a very serious safety issue. And I think when you're dealing with unavailability of NOTAMs, that was probably the only avenue that FAA had available.

FADEL: Is this a fluke? Was this a fluke, or are there inherent flaws with the U.S. aviation system?

WHITAKER: Well, I think it is a fluke. It's a very old system, but it's a pretty reliable system. It's administered by the - by ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization. It's a branch of the U.N. Almost 200 companies use NOTAMs. So with international aviation, you need that international standard so you've got the same information, the same abbreviations, the same format no matter where you're flying. So it's an old system, but we haven't had this type of failure before.

FADEL: I just want to play something that somebody told us yesterday on All Things Considered, Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.

GEOFF FREEMAN: We simply are not investing in the technology, in the people that we need to build an air travel experience that the traveling public can appreciate, an experience that they enjoy, an experience that they deserve.

FADEL: So does the FAA need new technology, upgrades, and why hasn't that happened?

WHITAKER: It is a complicated question. They definitely need new investment. They need new technology. They're subject to a funding model that's pretty inconsistent. Congress passes authorizations. They pass budgets. Those are inconsistent. They're not predictable. They're short-term. And then you have things like government shutdowns that interfere with the process. So you need investment. You don't have a stable source of funding. And you need investment not just to keep the current system running, but to accommodate new technologies, like flying air taxis.

FADEL: What's your view on what some Republicans in the past have called for - the privatization of air traffic control?

WHITAKER: Privatization is certainly one solution, and that could work. It's worked elsewhere. I think the key is to look at the problem you're solving for, which is a stable budget. You could achieve that in a number of ways. You could take it off the normal congressional pattern of funding and have a separate funding source, or you could privatize. But the key is to try to get stable funding and make those investments.

FADEL: Now, the FAA hasn't had a permanent administrator for nearly a year. How much does that affect U.S. aviation, not having stable leadership?

WHITAKER: Well, I think they do have stable leadership. I think the acting administrator has done a great job. But it is a time of transition - a lot of new startups in this space who are hiring from the FAA. They need to build the bench. So I think it is important to invest in the people, as well.

FADEL: So the FAA dealing with staff shortages that we're seeing across industries.

WHITAKER: I think that's right.

FADEL: Is the FAA, in its current form, equipped to keep American aviation safe and stable?

WHITAKER: Well, I think, as your previous guest mentioned, it is the busiest and the safest system in the world. But it's not the most efficient. So I think it's going to stay safe. I think that the place we feel the pain is sometimes you have these glitches that keep it from running smoothly.

FADEL: Yeah. And it's terrible if you're at the airport trying to get somewhere...

WHITAKER: Absolutely.

FADEL: ...Especially around the holidays.


FADEL: You know, there were questions yesterday about whether this was a cyberattack. And I'm wondering about the vulnerability of the system. Is it a safe system in that aspect?

WHITAKER: Well, ironically, because the system is so old, it's maybe less vulnerable to cyberattack because it's not as connected and modern as some other systems. This is - cybersecurity has always been a major, major focus for the FAA. So I think so far, the track record is pretty good in that space.

FADEL: Are there any lessons learned here?

WHITAKER: I think the lessons learned is, you know, we don't really have a redundancy system for NOTAMs. We have redundant computer systems, but there's just one source of data. So if that data is not solid or corrupted, it does create a vulnerability. And your only real option is to ground the system.

FADEL: Which has created a lot of chaos at the airport. Mike Whitaker was a deputy administrator at the FAA. And currently, he's chief commercial officer at Supernal, Hyundai Motor Group's air taxi company. Thank you so much.

WHITAKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.