Fixing The Notam Mess

Recent legislation requires the FAA to improve the Notam process, but changes are coming slowly. Meanwhile, new tools are available to make Notams less painful.


As more and more technology is welcomed into our formerly round-dial cockpits, many pilots have expressed growing frustration over the lingering need to do some things the old-fashioned way. In the new, high-tech cockpit, flat-panel screens, all-electronic flight instruments and portable, tablet-size computers with built-in GPS dominate our must-have lists. Along the way, these much-welcomed advances have helped simplify the pre-flight planning task.

But much of the information we need for every flight remains stuck in the abbreviated, ALL CAPS format used when DC-3s and J3 Cubs were the cat’s meow. The notice to airmen (Notam) function is perhaps the best/worst example of how international regulatory agencies have failed leveraging new technologies to improve dissemination of flight-critical information. But now, thanks to an unlikely set of circumstances, an overhaul of the Notam system is underway. Here’s what’s going on, why and what you can expect.

AN inFamous Landing
Yes, the U.S. Notam system for years has been a hit-or-miss method of collecting and disseminating vital information on the national airspace system. The Notam system tells us whether runways are in service, taxiways are under construction, obstructions have been erected (and where, and whether they are lighted or otherwise marked), airspace is opened or closed, and aids to navigation are functioning, and at what level. It is critical for safe flight—by regulation, all pilots should check Notams before a flight. But for years now, not all Notams have been available to pilots in a timely manner. That’s a problem, because the FAA’s own data shows an average of 300 Notams are issued every day in the U.S. alone.

It turns out that a Notam, or rather, the lack of one—it’s hard to say where things went wrong—figures prominently with U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and his story about why he ended up in an FAA enforcement proceeding.

On October 21, 2010, Inhofe landed a Cessna 340 at the Port Isabel-Cameron County (Texas) Airport (PIL) in a well-publicized event. The problem? The runway was closed, with Xs on it, along with workers and equipment. The exact circumstances are a bit murky, in part because Inhofe maintains controllers at the nearby radar facility cleared him to land at the non-towered airport, which is unlikely. Later that day, he took off from a taxiway in the 340.

As one result, the FAA initiated enforcement action against him and he quickly got to know what it’s like to be considered guilty of violating the FARs without knowing exactly what evidence was being used against him. There was, according to the Senator, no Notam in the system stating the runway was closed.

Ultimately, the FAA asked Inhofe to take a pilot competency ride with a flight instructor. His record was then cleared. In the aftermath, Inhofe was inspired to write remedial legislation, the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR), which was enacted last summer. It includes several reforms providing pilots with the right to know what they have been accused of by the FAA’s enforcement division, the right to see the evidence against them and recourse for an appeal of an FAA enforcement action. In addition, an entire portion of the legislation is dedicated to improving the Notam system and making it more accessible.

Senator Inhofe’s event is not the only one of its kind and Notams aren’t just missing at small non-towered airports in Texas. For example, we’re aware of a recent CitationAir’s crew attempt to dead-head an aircraft from Teterboro, N.J. (TEB) to White Plains, N.Y. (HPN). Instead of landing at HPN to load their passengers and departing on the next leg, the crew found their destination had closed for runway maintenance 10 minutes before their scheduled arrival. The tower told approach control, which told the crew. No Notam was in the system. Fortunately, it was not a dark and stormy night and the crew was able to return to TEB. But it was a costly little trip requiring the charter company to replace the crew (duty times would be exceeded) and inconvenience the client. That’s not a desired outcome for a business that has to be good to survive.

Six Months Later…
The PBOR’s provisions on Notams reflect Inhofe’s difficulty to determine what, if any, Notams were available for his flight, whether before it or later, during the FAA enforcement process. The legislation requires the FAA within 180 days of September 3, 2012, also known as March 2, 2013, “to begin” a Notam Improvement Program to improve pertinent and timely Notam dissemination, to publicly archive all Notams, including their original content, form, date and any amendments, plus develop “filters so that pilots can prioritize critical flight safety information from other airspace system information.”

Stated goals of the program include decreasing “the overwhelming volume of Notams an airman receives” and making them “more specific and relevant to the airman’s route.” The legislation also requires the FAA to “establish a Notam Improvement Panel…comprised of representatives of relevant nonprofit and not-for-profit general aviation pilot groups, to advise the Administrator in carrying out the goals” of the program. All of these provisions are supposed to be in place within a year of the bill’s enactment on September 3, 2012.

In response to our “howgozit” inquiries, the FAA highlighted how it is going all-digital with a new effort dubbed the Federal Notam System, or FNS. “As part of the FNS, we provide Web-enabled software capabilities for the entry and distribution of digital Notams,” the agency told us. “This new system enables digital data and geometries, where available, to graphically depict the impact of Notams. This means pilots not only have the words to describe Notams but also pictures to illustrate them, which provides an efficient way to transfer and sometimes clarify information,” according to the FAA.

Collection and Accuracy
The FAA’s FNS has three major components. First, FNS Notam Origination Services include functions designed to “capture, standardize and digitalize Notams at the source.” Second, the FNS Notam Distribution Services “makes Notam data…electronically available to the aviation community…that is more timely, reliable and relevant,” the agency told us. Third, the FNS Management Services “integrate permanent and temporary aeronautical information, apply business rules and validation, and transform and translate Notam data in format and representations.”

The FAA also tells us the FNS Notam Origination Services (NOS) function, deployed as a service known as Notam Manager. Presently is deployed at 114 airports, mainly large facilities like JFK and ORD. It also is being used by the Technical Operations organization at the main FAA Operational Control Centers in Atlanta, Kansas City and San Diego.

The FAA also has an FNS NOS system interface. It’s used by external systems to send their data directly into the FNS. Presently, its major users are “two major tower light operators,” according to the agency. It allows the companies to integrate with their tower monitoring systems through a standard interface. Meanwhile, other entities are being encouraged to transition to the FNS NOS as soon as possible. All Notam-generating organizations will transition to Notam Manager, eventually.

“So far, approximately 200,000 Notams have been processed through the FNS, and we have observed a tremendous gain in processing time efficiency,” the FAA told us. “Legacy Notams—the system in place before digital Notams—could take anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 hours to process. Using the digital Notam Manager or Notam Origination Service, the processing time has dropped from hours or minutes down to one to three seconds,” the agency pointed out.

In part, that’s because Notam Manager actually requires qualification—not just anyone can enter Notams, and those who will be entering them can only do so once they have passed training and qualification on the system.

So, where do those digital Notams go? Well, DUAT and Lockheed Martin certainly integrate them, as well as ICAO. They also head out via digital back channels to Foreflight, WXPro7, AOPA, Seattle Avionics, and the myriad other digital flight planning providers which tap into the official system.

Better Days Are Coming
The FAA tell us the all-digital Notam regime is coming. “On April 1, the FAA will make available the FNS Notam Distribution System, which will provide all Notams” in the U.S. “While the digital Notams originated through the FNS will contain digital elements, the legacy Notams will not have information to this level (geometries). But the system will contain all U.S. Notams,” the agency told us.

Meanwhile, pilots also are beginning to be steered to the FAA’s own PilotWeb Portal, online at Haven’t heard of it? We’re not surprised. It’s fairly new and not well-publicized; however, it’s the place to go if you want to sort and search for only those Notams truly pertaining to your flight, as opposed to culling the veritable laundry list of Notams routinely delivered. The system allows users to request Notam information in either raw text or a translated format, known as “report text.” This format also will insert a blank line between each Notam to improve readability.

You can access the PilotWeb portal from a tablet or even a mobile phone. It’s a quick-loading page, with several sorting methods for requesting Notam data. The question, of course, is will pilots use it?

For the time being, what we know is that the FAA Notam system exists in parallel analog and digital universes. Yes, an airport manager or tower operator can phone in a Notam to a Lockheed Martin FSS, and pilots can still phone Lockheed Martin to retrieve current Notams. But the push is on for Notam creators and consumers to transition to both FNS NOS and the PilotWeb portals, which the FAA promises will eliminate lag-time and inaccuracies in the Notam system, and make it more user-friendly on both ends. We hope so, and anxiously await the coming improvements.

Amy Laboda is a freelance writer, CFII-MEI and a National Lead FAAst Team representative. She holds an ATP and flies two experimental aircraft: one that’s sweet and slow and one that’s pretty and fast.






Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here