FAA system glitch causes thousands of flight delays and cancellations

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The airline industry has slowly resumed service after a Federal Aviation Administration system outage caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations across the United States on Wednesday.

The FAA briefly halted all U.S. domestic flight departures on Wednesday morning, lifting the ground stop around 9am ET after restoring a system that provides pilots with pre-flight safety warnings.

But airlines continued to delay or cancel flights due to ongoing congestion.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, the FAA website still showed delays at some airports.

Major US airlines, including United Airlines, Delta and American Airlines, said they had suspended flights in response to the situation. United and Delta issued travel waivers in response to the outage. American Airlines said its customers can reschedule their Wednesday and Thursday flights without additional fees.

FlightAware, which tracks delays and cancellations, showed more than 9,500 flights to, from and within the United States that were delayed as of 6 pm ET, and more than 1,300 canceled flights.

Southwest, which canceled thousands of flights after Christmas after a system-wide meltdown, has been hit hard, with more than 400 flights cancelled. About 10% of Southwest’s Wednesday flights were canceled and about half delayed as of 6 pm ET.

Southwest operations resumed mid-morning, the airline said.

“As a result of the FAA outage, we anticipate that some scheduling adjustments will be made throughout the day,” Southwest said in a statement, encouraging travelers to check the status of their flights online or through the airline’s app. . Southwest also issued an exemption allowing travelers to change their flights.

American Airlines has also been hit hard: Including feeder airlines that use regional jets, American said it had canceled nearly 400 flights as of midday on Wednesday.

The affected system, Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM), sends alerts to pilots to inform them of conditions that may affect the safety of their flights. It’s separate from the air traffic control system that keeps planes at a safe distance from each other, but it’s another critical tool for air safety.

In a statement late Wednesday, the FAA acknowledged that a corrupted file had caused the outage, confirming the CNN report.

“Our preliminary work traced the outage to a damaged database file. At this time, there is no evidence of a cyberattack,” the FAA said.

That echoed what Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Kate Bolduan in an interview on Wednesday.

“There is no direct evidence or indication of [a cyberattack] but we’re also not going to rule that out until we have a clear and better understanding of what’s going on,” Buttigieg said.

The 90-minute stoppage of US flights on Wednesday morning was implemented out of “an abundance of caution”. Buttigieg said there were “irregularities” overnight in safety messages sent to pilots that reflected a larger problem.

Buttigieg, who has been tough on airlines over their personnel and technology problems over the past year, said the Department for Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration would “take responsibility” for their failures.

“No, this type of outage shouldn’t happen and my main interest now that we’ve gotten past the immediate morning outages is to understand exactly how this was possible and exactly what steps are needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said via Twitter on Wednesday morning that he had ordered an “after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps.”

Nav Canada also reported an outage to Canada’s NOTAM system on Wednesday. This nearly three-hour outage did not affect flight operations and its cause is under investigation, the air navigation service provider said.

“At this time, we do not believe the cause is related to the FAA outage that occurred earlier today,” Nav Canada said in a statement.

It’s the second time in less than a month that frequent flyer Erin Potrzebowski has had her Southwest flight canceled as part of mass flight cancellations.

“I’ve never experienced anything like today’s event and like the Southwest event a few weeks ago,” said Potrzebowski, who was waiting for a rescheduled flight to New Orleans at Chicago’s Midway International Airport on Wednesday.

“It’s common to experience weather-related issues, but I’ve never experienced mass cancellations that impact the entire country,” said Potrzebowski.

Calls came in quickly for aviation system updates.

“The catastrophic failure of today’s FAA system is a clear sign that America’s transportation network is in desperate need of significant upgrades,” said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the US Travel Association.

“Americans deserve a complete, seamless and safe travel experience. And our nation’s economy depends on a best-in-class air transportation system.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently without a permanent leader, and President Biden’s candidate for office has faced criticism.

Investment in the agency is expected to be handled this year by Congress when the five-year FAA Reauthorization Act signed in 2018 expires.

International flights bound for the United States continued to take off from Amsterdam and Paris on Wednesday despite the situation. A spokesperson for Schiphol Airport told CNN that “an alternative solution had been issued” and flights were still departing Amsterdam.

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport was not seeing any cancellations, but delays were expected, according to the airport’s press office. Frankfurt Airport also told CNN it was not affected.

A spokesman for London Heathrow Airport told CNN on Wednesday that they were “not aware of the canceled flights and that flights to the US had recently departed”, however there were reports from passengers of significant delays.

Shabnam Amini told CNN that she and other travelers had been sitting aboard American Airlines Flight 51 to Dallas for nearly three hours at Heathrow because of the FAA outage.

She said they were told there were delays but were still on board the aircraft.

Commercial airline pilots use NOTAMS to obtain real-time information about flight risks and restrictions. The FAA stipulates that NOTAMS should not be considered the sole source of information, and therefore some flights may meet safety requirements using other data.

Wednesday’s incident comes on the heels of another aviation crisis. A massive winter storm during the holiday season caused major disruption and helped trigger the Southwest Airlines collapse that affected thousands of passengers.

While Southwest’s Wednesday flight cancellations are an issue for its customers, it was nowhere near as bad as what occurred on December 21-29, when some 16,000 flights, or nearly half of its schedule, had to to be canceled due to lack of available staff.

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