What is the FAA’s NOTAM? An aviation expert explains how the critical safety system works

Late in the evening of Jan. 10, 2023, an important digital system known as NOTAM run by the Federal Aviation Administration went offline. The FAA was able to continue getting necessary information to pilots overnight using a phone-based backup, but the stopgap couldn’t keep up with the morning rush of flights, and on Jan. 11, 2022, the FAA grounded all commercial flights in the U.S. In total, nearly 7,000 flights were canceled. Brian Strzempkowksi is the interim director of the Center for Aviation Studies at The Ohio State University and a commercial pilot, flight instructor and dispatcher. He explains what the NOTAM system is and why planes can’t fly if the system goes down.

A number of planes line up for takeoff on a runway.

Pilots must check the NOTAM system before takeoff so that they know about any situations that may affect safety.
Bill Abbott/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

What is NOTAM?

Aviation is full of acronyms, and Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM, is one acronym that pilots learn early on in their training. A NOTAM is quite simply a message that is disseminated to flight crews of every aircraft in the U.S.

The NOTAM system is a computer network run by the Federal Aviation Administration that provides real-time updates to crews about situations relating to weather, infrastructure, ground conditions or anything else that may affect the safety of flight. Trained professionals – like air traffic controllers, airport managers, airport operations personnel and FAA personnel in charge of national airspace infrastructure – can access the system and enter any information they need to share broadly.

Pilots, air traffic controllers and anyone else who needs to know about flying conditions can access the NOTAM system and make appropriate changes to planned flights. It’s similar to checking the traffic on your phone or on the local news before you head to work in the morning. A traffic report will inform you of potential hazards or backups on the roadways that may lead you take a different route to work.

What’s in the NOTAM system and how is it used?

NOTAMs are issued for a wide range of reasons. Some of the notices are good to know but don’t affect a flight – such as personnel mowing grass alongside a runway or a crane working on a building next to the airport. Others are more critical, such as a runway being closed because of snow, ice or damage, forcing a plane to take off or land on a different runway. Changes in access to airspace are also logged with a NOTAM. For example, airspace is always closed above the president and when he or she travels; a NOTAM will alert pilots to changes in airspace closures.

Pilots review these NOTAMs during their preflight briefings. Generally this is done digitally using a computer, but pilots and air traffic controllers can also access the system by calling flight service briefers, who can share live weather and NOTAM information. Airline pilots also rely on their dispatchers to relay any…

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