Airlines hope for return to normal Thursday after FAA outage snarls U.S. travel

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO, Jan 11 (Reuters) – The U.S. aviation sector struggled to return to normal on Wednesday after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed a nationwide ground stop due to a computer problem that shut down all of the U.S. for 90 minutes. Departing flights

According to FlightAware, more than 8,775 flights have been delayed and more than 1,270 canceled so far in the first national grounding in nearly two decades. Many industry officials compared the grounding to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The total number of flights has reached 10,000 and is still rising but airline officials are confident that normal operations can mostly return by Thursday.

Major carriers such as Southwest Airlines Co ( LUV.N ), United Airlines ( AAL.O ), Delta Air Lines ( DAL.N ) and American Airlines ( AAL.O ) reported 40% or more of their flights delayed or canceled on Wednesday.

The cause of the problem with the pilot-alerting messaging system is unclear, but US officials said they have found no evidence of a cyberattack so far. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said an issue with safety messages sent to pilots prompted the shutdown.

“The immediate focus is technical, understanding exactly how this happened, the redundancies and backups built into the system could not prevent the level of disruption,” Buttigieg said.

The White House said President Joe Biden still has confidence in Buttigieg.

Buttigieg said the ground stop was “the right call” to make sure messages were being sent correctly and there was no direct evidence of a cyberattack.

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Buttigieg told reporters the backup system went into effect Tuesday but questions were raised about the system’s performance, which led to a complete reboot of the system and then prompted the FAA to issue a ground stop around 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT). It was lifted just before 9 am EST.

A system that briefs pilots and others on air missions with safety messages failed around 3:30 pm EST on Tuesday, meaning no new messages could be processed, the FAA advisory said.

The outage occurred at a typically slower time after the holiday travel period, but demand remains strong as travel continues to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

It could affect traffic until Friday, said Capt. Chris Torres, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association.

“This thing was removed at 9 p.m. It doesn’t mean the problem will stop at 9 p.m. It will have ripple effects,” said Torres, whose members fly on American Airlines.

One problem airlines face is trying to get planes in and out of crowded gates, leading to further delays. Staffing time-limit rules may also be a factor.

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At the airport in Greenville, South Carolina, Justin Kennedy abandoned a work trip to nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. He described the confusion as airline employees and many passengers were initially unaware of the FAA’s moves and flight delays.

“I’m sitting in the Chick-fil-A dining area with a good view of the TSA exit,” said the 30-year-old information technology employee. “I saw at least four people running to the gates because they thought they were going to miss their flight, only to run back to the food court out of breath.”

A ‘catastrophic’ failure

US airline customers have few alternatives. Driving distances are very long and the country’s commuter rail network is thin compared to other countries.

The US Travel Association, which represents the travel industry, including airlines, called the FAA system failure “catastrophic.”

The outage had limited impact on transatlantic routes.

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, said the committee would investigate. Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the failure “absolutely unacceptable.”

Shares of US carriers rebounded after the market opened as flights resumed. The S&P 500 Airlines Index (.SPLRCAIR) closed up 0.9%.

An operational meltdown in the Southwest late last year left thousands stranded.

The DOT, the FAA’s parent agency, criticized Southwest’s failures and pressured the airline to compensate passengers. Buttigieg on Wednesday rejected a suggestion that the FAA reimburse passengers for delays caused by the shutdown.

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On January 2 the FAA encountered another significant computer problem, which caused significant delays in Florida flights.

Package delivery companies such as FedEx ( FDX.N ), United Parcel Service ( UPS.N ) and DHL ( DPWGn.DE ), which rely heavily on flights, said on Wednesday they faced minimal disruptions.

Separately on Wednesday afternoon, air traffic control manager NAV Canada reported a nearly 90-minute outage on a similar messaging system used in Canada, but said the problem did not cause any flight delays. The agency said it does not believe its outage is related to the FAA one, but is investigating.

Rhea Malhotra, a 29-year-old resident physician from Weehawken, New Jersey, was scheduled to fly from Newark to Las Vegas for a medical conference, but her flight was first delayed and then rescheduled. After this, she wonders how far she can fly.

“I don’t want to deal with this process anymore because I think flight delays are more the norm than the exception,” he said.

Reporting by Doina Chiaku and David Shepardson in Washington, Abhijit Ganapavaram in Bengaluru, Jamie Freed in Sydney and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago Additional reporting by Nathan Gomes and Priyamvada C in Bengaluru. Carew in New York, Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Steve Holland in Washington Writing by Shailesh Kubair, Alexander Smith and Ben Clayman Editing by Edmund Blair, Nick Ziminski and Matthew Lewis

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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