How Data will destroy NOTAMs

2019 seems to be the year of NOTAMs. Ever since the publication of the NTSB’s findings on the Air Canada 759 and the discussion of this incident in the NTSB Board Meeting, the NOTAM system has been under constant scrutiny for its (un)fitness for purpose.

To start understanding the matter it is useful to look at the definition of NOTAM as given by ICAO:

A notice distributed by means of telecommunication containing information concerning the establishment, condition or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel concerned with flight operations

ICAO Annex 15

As the Air Canada incident report highlights, and as also well known to the many dispatchers, pilots and other industry experts, there are many pitfalls in how NOTAMs are being published nowadays.

It doesn’t come as surprise to most therefore that the NTSB has been pretty harsh with the status of things, with Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt noting that “the NOTAM system is really messed up”.

That’s what NOTAMs are: they’re just a bunch of garbage that nobody pays any attention to.

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the NTSB Safety Board

Some of the problems that are known to affect the NOTAM systems are:

  • the type of characters being used (ITA-2), dating back to 1924
  • the publication of information that is not safety-relevant, but serves merely as blame-shifting in case of an accident or incident
  • political use, for example for territorial claims
  • the lack of clarity with loads of abbreviations, codes and coordinates to be deciphered
  • Standardised abbreviations are often ignored in favour of arbitrary ones.

Some of these points were well summarised by Mr. Sumwalt in his address. Using his words, NOTAMs “are written in some kind of language that only a computer programmer would really understand”.

At aviowiki, this rang a bell! We are the link between the aviation industry and the IT industry, something which is written for programmers is our bread and butter.

Additionally, when this something is about aeronautical data and how things change in the industry, we’re definitely the right bunch to look at it.

Fresh data doesn’t need a notice

The whole idea of NOTAMs is based on the issue that the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) is updated every 28 days, and therefore there might be changes that need to be notified to airspace users between two update cycles.

Dismantling this archaic idea is the core of the aviowiki project. In our view, aviation data is a fresh and lively entity which models an ever-changing world. The information retrieved now may look significantly different from those retrieved in a few hours, and this simply reflects how things work in the real world.

To fully replace the old NOTAM concept therefore we are building two things: a digital representation of every aviation-related entity, and a time context for every one of them.

That’s what we can friendly call DATAM: Data To Air(Wo)Men.

A simple query to aviowiki will return the status of an entity with relation to time, which then makes it useless to have a separate amendment notice (today’s NOTAM) that need to be manually checked.

How does it work

Consider the Air Canada incident. The flight planning software, the aircraft avionics and the airport charts had airport information that described the runways and approaches. The crew then had a separate notice that amended such information.

If all systems involved would have just received the right airport information, indicating that one of the runways would be closed at the time of arrival, the incident would have probably never taken place.

This is nothing new in other more technologically advanced industries. Consider in fact road maps. You don’t have a map and then a list of text amendments that tell you about closures, congestion and hazards. If you use an application like Waze, for example, you are re-routed based on the current conditions of the road, including temporary closures and live traffic.

What’s at stake

Of course, the Air Canada incident could have ended up much worse than it actually did. It was estimated that the aircraft missed another taxiing aircraft by just 13ft (4m) before obtaining a positive climb.

However, if we look beyond the possible tragedies, aviation has an urgent need to modernise its airspace. There are some urgent issues that need to be addressed, and where technology can assist.

Improving route efficiency to reduce fuel consumptions (cheaper tickets, fewer emissions), allowing more type of aircraft to cooperate in busy airspaces (General Aviation and Commercial Aviation) as well as opening the skies to entirely new type of transport (Unmanned Air Vehicles).

None of this is possible without a strong technological push, and this is why we are so radical about change in such a traditional industry.

What else is being done

aviowiki is not alone in the quest for a better Aeronautical Information System, and in the battle against useless NOTAMs.

ICAO, Eurocontrol, the FAA, Nav Canada and many industry experts have brought forward initiatives to end this madness and push for a better system that works for everyone.

Most notably OpsGroup‘s founder Mark Zee has been putting together a pretty committed team of experts to tackle the problem in what is now called “The NOTAM Team”. The website FixingNOTAMs.org is the media outlet of The NOTAM Team and you can read a lot about the issue and what is being done to fix it. At aviowiki we are proud of being part of this bunch and supporting the cause for a safe and modern aviation!

We need all the help

aviowiki is built with the support of the entire industry. Our database is maintained with a lot of help from the aviation community and we are constantly looking at improving by learning from our users.

If you think we could do better we’d like to hear from you. Are you sitting on a large pot of data that you think might be helpful to someone else out there, we’d like to talk to you!

Are you trying to modernise some processes, but you’re having a bumpy road because you cannot get the right data? Let us know, maybe we can help!


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