WASHINGTON — Aviation authorities in the U.S. are facing criticism for failing to update the critical-alert system that malfunctioned last month, resulting in thousands of flight disruptions. The delay in the system's modernization is being seen as a potential risk to passenger safety.

On Tuesday, members of the United States House of Representatives are preparing to hold a hearing on the state of aviation safety. They are expected to probe the collapse of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Notice to Air Missions (Notam) system on January 11th.

Although the Agency has taken measures to prevent a similar failure from occurring again, the underlying problems with the platform are reportedly much more extensive and have been neglected for years.

The Notam system, managed by the FAA, issues crucial safety bulletins to pilots flying within the United States. These bulletins may encompass a wide range of information, including anything from malfunctioning airport lights to temporary airspace closures, as was the case on February 4th when the FAA suspended flights along the U.S. East Coast for a military operation to eliminate a Chinese surveillance balloon. It is mandatory for pilots to review these Notams prior to their flight departure.

However, government records, industry organizations, and numerous pilot reports have indicated that the Notam system is overloaded with excess information that is challenging to organize and comprehend due to its outdated terminology. The FAA acknowledges these limitations and has plans for improvements, but in a letter to members of the House of Representatives on January 27th, Acting Administrator Billy Nolen stated that a complete update to the system would not be completed until 2030. This comes nearly a decade after Congress first directed the FAA to initiate upgrades to the Notam system in 2012.

According to two sources familiar with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) briefings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter, the projected completion date of 2030 for the Notam system upgrades is several years later than previously foreseen.

"The soonest the FAA can complete the work is 2030 based on the current funding. The FAA is looking for ways to accelerate the work," the Agency said in a statement.

In recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made strides in updating the Notam bulletins by designing a more user-friendly interface and reducing the number of notices. The Agency continues to work towards further improvement and has requested a budget of $29.4 million for the current year to replace the outdated hardware.

The FAA has explained that the January malfunction was caused by employees of the government contractor responsible for its maintenance, Spatial Front Inc., who mistakenly deleted crucial data. This resulted in system failures that brought down both the primary and backup platforms. Acting Administrator Billy Nolen informed lawmakers that the FAA intends to replace the aging 30-year-old computer system by 2025.

Pilots face another challenge with the Notam system, which has been in place since before the advent of commercial jet travel. The system utilizes terminology that harkens back to the era of teletype messages, characterized by capitalized text and abbreviated words. This stylistic approach makes it challenging for pilots to effectively understand and organize the numerous warnings and alerts that can be issued for any given flight, which can number in the dozens.

Bruce Landsberg, a pilot and Vice Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, stated that he typically receives hundreds of Notam bulletins each time he flies from South Carolina to Washington, D.C. for work, but most of them are not relevant to his flights.

I would never have had time to take off on the same day if I had plotted every radio tower or crane listed in the notices for just one airport, said another pilot last year.

In the week prior to the January malfunction, officials from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in which they acknowledged the FAA's efforts to examine the issue. However, the letter also included a warning stating that NTSB is not aware of any progress the FAA has made in making Notams more readable and useful to pilots.