(CNN) – Officials are still trying to figure out exactly what caused Wednesday’s FAA system outage, but have traced it to a corrupted file, which was first reported by CNN.
In a statement late Wednesday, the FAA said it was continuing to investigate the outage and “is taking all necessary steps to prevent this type of outage from occurring again.”
“Our preliminary work has traced the outage to a corrupted database file. There is no evidence of a cyber attack at this time,” the FAA said.
The FAA is still trying to determine whether a single person or “routine login” to the database was responsible for the corrupted file, a government official familiar with the investigation into the NOTAM system outage told CNN.
Another source familiar with the FAA operation described exclusively to CNN on Wednesday how the outage unfolded.
When air traffic control officials realized they had a computer problem late Tuesday, they came up with a plan, the source said, to restart the system when it would least disrupt air travel, early Wednesday morning.
But in the end, that plan and the disruption led to massive flight delays and an unprecedented order to ground all aircraft flights across the country.
The computer system that failed was the central database for all NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions) across the country. These notices advise pilots of problems along their route and at their destination. It has a backup that employees switched to when problems occurred with the main system, according to the source.
FAA officials told reporters early Wednesday that the problems developed at 3:00 PM ET on Tuesday.
Officials eventually discovered a corrupted file in the main NOTAM system, the source told CNN. A corrupt file was also detected in the backup system.
In the overnight hours of Tuesday into Wednesday, FAA officials decided to shut down and restart the main NOTAM system — an important decision because the restart could take about 90 minutes, according to the source.
They decided to carry out the restart early Wednesday, before air traffic began to fly along the East Coast, to minimize flight disruptions.
“They thought they were going to beat the rush,” the source said.
During this early morning process, the FAA told reporters that the system was “starting to come back online,” but said it would take time to resolve.
The system, according to the source, “has returned but has not fully pushed out the relevant information needed for a safe flight and appears to be taking longer to do so.”
The FAA then issued a national ground blackout around 7:30 a.m. ET, halting all domestic departures.
Planes in the take-off queue were held up before entering the runways. Flights already in the air are notified verbally of the safety notes by air traffic controllers who keep a static electronic or paper record on their desks of the active notes.
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg ordered a review after the action and also said there was “no direct evidence or indication” that the problem was a cyber attack.
The source said the NOTAM system is an example of outdated infrastructure that needs to be overhauled.
“Due to budget issues and budget flexibility, this technology refresh was delayed,” the source said. “I guess now they’ll actually find the money to do it.”
“The FAA’s infrastructure is much more than just bricks and mortar.”
Investments in the agency will be examined this year by Congress when the five-year FAA Reauthorization Act signed in 2018 expires.
Top image: A traveler looks at a flight delays and cancellations board at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington on January 11. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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