Air Travel Across U.S. Thrown into Chaos after Computer Outage
By MICHELLE CHAPMAN AP Business Writer
U.S. air travel was grounded for hours Wednesday morning by a cascading outage in a government system that delayed or cancelled thousands of flights.
The White House initially said that there was no evidence of a cyberattack behind the outage that ruined travel plans for millions of passengers. President Biden said Wednesday morning that he’s directed the Department of Transportation to investigate.
A order to ground all departing flights by the Federal Aviation Administration was lifted, but there are already 1,000 flight cancellations and more than 7,000 delayed flights. That number was expected to grow as the air travel network comes back to life throughout the day.
More than 21,000 flights were scheduled to take off in the U.S. today, mostly domestic trips, and about 1,840 international flights expected to fly to the U.S., according to aviation data firm Cirium.
Some medical flights can get clearance and the outage is not impacting any military operations or mobility.
Early Wednesday, flights for the U.S. military’s Air Mobility Command had not been impacted, said Air Force Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command is responsible for all the troop movement and supply flights, such as the C-17s that carry the president’s motorcade vehicles when he travels, but also all the flights that transport troops from one base to another. Air Mobility Command was working with the FAA on the issue.
President Joe Biden addressed the FAA issue Wednesday before leaving the White House to accompany his wife to a medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside of Washington. He said he had just been briefed by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told him they still had not identified what went wrong.
“I just spoke to Buttigieg. They don’t know what the cause is. But I was on the phone with him about 10 minutes,” Biden said. “I told him to report directly to me when they find out. Air traffic can still land safely, just not take off right now. We don’t know what the cause of it is.”
Buttigieg said in a tweet that he is in touch with the FAA and monitoring the situation.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
Julia Macpherson was on a United Airlines flight from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles on Wednesday when she learned of possible delays.
“As I was up in the air I got news from my friend who was also traveling overseas that there was a power outage,” said Macpherson, who was returning to Florida from Hobart, Tasmania. Once she lands in Los Angeles, she still has a connection in Denver on her flight to Jacksonville, Florida.
She said there have been no announcements on the flight about the FAA issue.
Macpherson said she had already experienced a delay in her travels because her original flight from Melbourne to San Francisco was canceled and she rebooked a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles.
The FAA is working to restore what is known as the Notice to Air Missions System.
Before commencing a flight, pilots are required to consult NOTAMs, or Notices to Air Missions, which list potential adverse impacts on flights, from runway construction to the potential for icing. The system used to be telephone-based, with pilots calling dedicated flight service stations for the information, but has now moved online.
Breakdowns in the NOTAM system appear to be rare.
“I don’t ever remember the NOTAM system going down like this. I’ve been flying 53 years,” said John Cox, a former airline pilot and now an aviation-safety consultant.
According FAA advisories, the NOTAM system failed at 8:28 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday preventing new or amended notices from being distributed to pilots. The FAA resorted to a telephone hotline in an effort to keep departures flying overnight, but as daytime traffic picked up it overwhelmed the telephone backup system.
Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the U.S. military flights were not impacted because the military has its own NOTAMS system separate from the FAA system and the military’s system was not affected by the outage.
European flights into the U.S. appeared to be largely unaffected.
Irish carrier Aer Lingus said services to the U.S. continue, and Dublin Airport’s website showed that its flights to Newark, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles were running on schedule.
“Aer Lingus plan to operate all transatlantic flights as scheduled today,” the carrier said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to monitor but we do not anticipate any disruption to our services arising from the technical issue in the United States.”
This is just the latest headache for travelers in the U.S. who faced flight cancellations over the holidays amid winter storms and a breakdown with staffing technology at Southwest Airlines. They also ran into long lines, lost baggage, and cancellations and delays over the summer as travel demand roared back from the COVID-19 pandemic and ran into staffing cutbacks at airports and airlines in the U.S. and Europe.
The FAA said that it would provide frequent updates as it made progress.
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“The @FAANews is experiencing technical issues this morning resulting in grounded flights nationwide including at #FlyMGM. Please check directly with your airline for the latest information about your flight schedule.” https://t.co/VOffz1N3gD
— Montgomery Regional Airport (@flymgm) January 11, 2023