Air traffic

FAA statement on mysterious air traffic halt leaves more questions than answers

The Federal Aviation Administration has finally released an official statement regarding a still very mysterious ground stop order it issued at approximately 2:30 p.m. PST yesterday for all aircraft in the Western United States and Hawaii. While the incident is now confirmed, there are still a significant number of unanswered questions, including the most important: what triggered this decision in the first place? You can first get acquainted with what The war zone had been able to determine in our initial report here.

The FAA released its statement just before 9:40 a.m. PST this afternoon, more than 20 hours after the order was sent. The war zone had previously contacted the FAA with a number of basic questions regarding the event, but we have yet to receive a direct response.

The full FAA statement so far regarding this incident is as follows:

As a precaution, the FAA temporarily suspended departures at some West Coast airports on Monday evening. Full operations resumed in less than 15 minutes. The FAA regularly takes precautionary measures. We are looking at the process around this ground stop as we do after all of these events.

This statement is immediately curious for a number of reasons. For one thing, publicly available recordings of air traffic controllers on the ground talking to pilots at the time show that this break was not limited to the west coast of the continental United States. For example, pilots in Honolulu, Hawaii received similar instructions.

A source, a pilot flying in Yuma, Arizona, which is about 150 miles inland from the West Coast, said The war zone that the alert had been described to them as a “national ground stop”. It also underscores that we know the stop order didn’t just impact starts. Other air traffic control recordings clearly indicate that even some planes were also ordered to land as soon as possible.

The FAA’s statement also does not mention what prompted it to take this “precaution”. Air traffic controllers in Burbank, California can be heard in a recording referring to an unspecified ‘threat to national security’.”

The had been reported, as well as general speculation, that the ground stop may have been linked to a North Korean missile launch this happened almost at the same time the FAA issued its order. It wasn’t entirely beyond the realm of reason. A Russian missile drill led to a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile flying towards Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a major US Air Force hub, in 2020. North Korea has developed a slew of ballistic missiles new and improved in recent years, some that have the ability to reach the United States, including Hawaii, as well as smaller outlying territories in the Pacific.

When we contacted US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) earlier today, a public affairs officer declined to confirm or deny whether this launch had ever been classified as a threat to the United States or any of its outlying territories, and referred all our questions to the FAA. A spokesman for the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said separately The war zone that he issued no alerts about the North Korean launch or any other potential threat that then triggered the FAA’s response, refuting a report earlier today from CNN. This same point of sale reported later that a NORAD official had told him that the North Korean launch had been quickly determined not to pose a threat to the United States.

There is certainly no shortage of other potential sources of threats, real or alleged, that could have prompted the FAA to act. In January 2021, it emerged that New York air traffic controllers had heard a threat over the radio, but deemed it not credible. “We are flying a plane to the Capitol on Wednesday. Soleimani will be avenged,” a digitized voice reportedly said, referring to the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq the previous year on January 3.

We still don’t know what type of information STRATCOM passed on to the FAA or if they passed on threat information regarding the North Korean test launch. That being said, the fact that NORAD said it had not issued an alert and did not consider this missile a threat makes it all the more puzzling. We discussed the major challenges that exist when it comes to accurately categorizing and responding to North Korean missile launches in our initial report.

Another type of reported threat, real or not, a hack of some FAA systems, or even just any glaring error, are also possible explanations for what could have happened that have nothing to do with the North Korean missile test. We just don’t know at the moment.

What we do know is that the FAA statement is extremely limited given the vacuum of information surrounding what was a major event. Not only he not tell the whole story, it tells no story at all how it happened or why. We hope to receive a response to our request from the agency to help clarify the issue and understand exactly what happened.

We will continue to update this story with more information as it becomes available.

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