(CNN) – Authorities are still trying to figure out exactly what led to the Federal Aviation Administration’s system outage on Wednesday, but have traced it back to a corrupted file, which was first reported by CNN.
In a statement on Wednesday, the FAA said it is continuing to investigate the outage and “takes all necessary steps to prevent this type of outage from happening again.”
“Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyberattack,” the FAA said.
The FAA is still trying to determine whether any person or “routine entry” into the database is responsible for the corrupted file, a government official familiar with the investigation into the NOTAM system outage told CNN.
Another source familiar with the Federal Aviation Administration operation described exclusively to CNN on Wednesday how the outage came about.
When air traffic control officials realized they had a computer problem on Tuesday, they came up with a plan, the source said, to reset the system when it disrupted air travel the least, on Wednesday morning.
But ultimately, that plan and the disruption led to massive flight delays and an unprecedented order to stop all aircraft departures across the country.
The computer system that failed was the central database of all NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions) across the country. These warnings inform pilots of problems along their route and at their destination. It has a backup, which employees switched to when problems arose with the main system, according to the source.
FAA officials told reporters Wednesday that the problems developed at 3 pm ET on Tuesday.
Authorities finally found a corrupted file in the main NOTAM system, the source told CNN. A corrupt file was also found on the backup system.
During the early hours of Tuesday through Wednesday, FAA officials decided to shut down and restart the main NOTAM system — a significant decision, because the restart can take about 90 minutes, according to the source.
They decided to perform the reset on Wednesday, before air traffic started flying on the East Coast, to minimize disruption to flights.
“They thought they would be ahead of the race,” said the source.
During that morning process, the FAA told reporters the system was “starting to come back online” but said it would take time to resolve.
The system, according to the source, “came back on, but it wasn’t fully providing the pertinent information it needed for a safe flight, and it appeared to be taking longer to do so.”
That’s when the FAA issued a national stop around 7:30 am ET, halting all domestic departures.
Aircraft queued for take-off were kept before entering the runways. Flights already in the air were verbally advised of the safety warnings by air traffic controllers, who keep a static electronic or paper record on their desks of the active warnings.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg ordered an after-action review and also said there was “no direct evidence or indication” that the issue was a cyberattack.
The source said the NOTAM system is an example of aging infrastructure in need of an overhaul.
“Due to budgetary concerns and budget flexibility, this technology upgrade has been delayed,” the source said. “I suppose now they’re actually going to find the money to do that.”
“The FAA’s infrastructure is much more than just bricks and mortar.”
Investment in the agency is expected to be addressed this year by Congress when the five-year FAA Reauthorization Act signed in 2018 expires.
Top image: A traveler looks at a flight board listing delays and cancellations at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Jan. 11. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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