The system to define the flight plan is almost a century old and it needs an overhaul.
When the wright brothers started flying the only things around them were birds. By the time the First World War ended, planes had been in the air for war and aeroplane manufacturers started airmail services to keep their manufacturing businesses going.
Flying was undertaken mostly by eyeballing. Almost no one flew in the night because it was impossible to make out which way they were headed.
Radar and Navigations technologies were invented during the Second World War.
Our inventive juices start flowing the moment we need to kill another human being. Money for inventions started flowing the moment we had to annihilate another nation.
Before radar, to make it easy for the pilots to know if any other plane was in the air, the pilot would submit a flight plan if you might call it that. This plan was called a Notice to Air Men or NOTAM. The system was first instituted in the US in 1924. It used to be written in plain English.
It was upgraded in terms of codes to make the entire system standardised but for the most part, the reporting system has been the same. The trouble is that the world has moved on in various ways and the kinds of challenges that we face today as well as the technologies at our disposal are wildly different from back in 1924.
Here is an example.
In most cases, a missed NOTAM only results in a little embarrassment for the pilot. But there have been cases where a poorly written NOTAM has cost lives. For years this has been a controversial statement because most accidents have a chain of circumstances and defenders of the status quo could point to other causes. "See! It wasn't our fault!"
All that ended with the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Here is the most pertinent NOTAM in effect when that airplane overflew the Ukraine:
Q) UKDV/QRTCA/IV/BO /W /260/320/4822N03807E095
B) 1407141800 C) 1408142359EST
E) TEMPO RESTRICTED AREA INSTALLED WITHIN FIR DNIPROPETROVSK
BOUNDED BY COORDINATES : 495355N 0380155E 485213N 0372209E 480122N
0370253E 471352N 0365856E 465018N 0374325E 465900N 0382000E
THEN ALONG STATE BOUNDARY UNTIL POINT 495355N 0380155E.
RESTRICTION NOT APPLIED FOR FLIGHTS OF STATE ACFT OF UKRAINE.
F) FL260 G) FL320)
Did you take away from this NOTAM that two aircraft had been shot down in the previous three days in this airspace? Even if the "F) FL260 G) FL320" caught your attention and even if your plan, as with MH17, was to overfly at FL330, would knowing that there was a war going on down below have changed your decision making? What if you heard the bad guys had a surface to air missile that could reach aircraft up to 70,000 feet? Now what decision would you make?
The pilot specifies under F) The lower limit of altitude G) The higher limit of altitude - 26000 Ft to 32000 Ft. But SAMs can reach 70000 feet.
The primary problem with NOTAM is the insistence on writing things in unintelligible code just because people continue to follow old conventions. To add to that the whole system is run on decades-old networks.
The United States Federal Aviation Administration today halted flights taking off across the country beginning early this morning and continuing until 9 am ET. The pause—the first of its kind in the US since the September 11, 2001 attacks—delayed thousands of flights and created a cascade of further delays and cancellations throughout the day. Those familiar with the FAA’s systems say the outage is unprecedented—but caps off years of frustration as the agency works to transition its complex processes to the cloud.
The NOTAM system is decades old and widely criticized by pilots for being cumbersome and inefficient. NOTAM alerts can be tens or even hundreds of pages long, and are written in a sort of coded parallel language that has evolved over many years and out of numerous technologies, including Morse code, telegrams, and the radio navigation system Loran-C.
NOTAMs often include the same alert repeated multiple times as well as nonessential details that auto-populate in the system for weeks or months on end. A federal investigation found that a hard-to-read NOTAM was likely responsible for a 2017 incident in which Air Canada aircraft almost collided with four different planes as it landed on a San Francisco runway.
The situation in the US added insult to injury as the entire west coast was being slammed by bad weather and passengers were left stranded in the midst of it.
The situation is not too dissimilar from that of financial networks. UPI in India for instance has shown how modernisation at the very fundamental level can change the way the economy works. It has the potential to unleash many more benefits apart from just carrying out the transaction. India was not burdened by traditional credit card networks and hence could introduce something brand new very quickly and easily.
In many of the industries in the West established players have a vested interest in keeping the systems the way they are because they have all turned into rent seekers. Even a company like Apple decides to introduce a credit card rather than go up against the system and try and disrupt it altogether.
The aviation industry has not undergone any innovation in the last 50 years. Planes still look the same, airports still look the same, and every process is still the same. Plane manufacturing is a global duopoly. Most airports are government owned. Airlines companies grow and consolidate every two decades. In the end, every country has 3-5 airlines that control the whole market; others come and go.
The state of the NOTAM is not the problem but a symptom of a bigger problem which is the monopolistic structure of the aviation business.