As a result of an overnight failure of an FAA pilot-alert system, thousands of aircraft across the United States were delayed on Wednesday.
As the FAA tried to restore the Notice to Air Missions system, which notifies pilots of things like blocked runways, dangers, and other information, it lifted the ground stop on departing planes at approximately 9 a.m. ET.
The FAA’s downtime resulted in the second significant interruption to air travel in a little over a month, and it was widely panned for doing so. Late in December, severe weather disrupted Christmas travel plans, resulting in widespread flight cancellations and a crisis at Southwest Airlines as the company struggled to adapt to the constant schedule adjustments.
An FAA warning states that the NOTAM system stopped working at 3:28 on Tuesday afternoon. Per those in the know, the problem was caused by a damaged system file. According to the sources, the FAA assumed the issue was rectified, but it wasn’t, so the agency opted to reset the system entirely and ordered a ground halt on Wednesday morning, delaying all departing flights. There is a backup for the NOTAM system, but the faulty data apparently made its way into both the primary and backup systems.
Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation, has “ordered an after-action process to analyze fundamental causes and recommend future actions” in light of the extraordinary outage.
As of Wednesday at 4:45 p.m. ET, flight-tracking service FlightAware reported that more than 9,500 domestic flights had been delayed. Throughout the day, congestion caused by the ground stop’s lingering delays made the situation even more intolerable.
Earlier on Wednesday, Delta, United, and Southwest had warned of possible schedule changes. During interruptions, airlines typically reduce flight frequencies to prevent airports from becoming overcrowded with stranded planes.
Delta aircraft to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Boston Logan International Airport, and New York’s LaGuardia Airport, as well as American Airlines flights to its Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport hub, were all grounded beyond the nationwide ground stop.
United informed its pilots that it was setting aside seats for commuter crews so that they would not have to use stand-by flights to go to work.
This Wednesday, more than 1,300 domestic flights in the United States were called off. According to Cerium, an aviation data company, more than 23,000 planes were planned to land in, depart from, or otherwise transit the United States.
On Thursday, FlightAware reported that there were no cancellations or delays for domestic flights in the United States. Delta told CNBC it anticipates “little residual impact if any” on Thursday.
As a result of the disruption, many airlines gave impacted customers free changes and refunds on the difference in fares.
According to the White House, President Joe Biden was briefed on the outage by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted, “There is no proof of a hack at this moment, but the President asked DOT to undertake a complete investigation into the reasons.”
Canada’s air navigation service reported a temporary breakdown in a similar notification system later on Wednesday, but no planes were delayed as a consequence. By 2:15 p.m. ET, the system had been fixed.
On Wednesday, an FAA scandal added to Republican and Democratic worries about Washington, DC, and the technology on which the world’s busiest aviation system, the United States, depends.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., head of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that the committee will investigate the reason for the outage and the role that redundancy plays in preventing similar failures as it draughts FAA renewal legislation. Air travel must be reliable for the public’s sake.
Representatives from United, Spirit and more than a dozen other airlines’ cabin workers are represented by Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson, who has called for increased funding for the FAA.
We’ll learn more about the problem’s origins in the coming days, but one thing is certain: Our aviation system needs substantial and reliable investment this year so that it can join the 21st century. Another funding patch or a government shutdown would be disastrous.
Last year, hundreds of aircraft delays and cancellations impacted travelers, especially in the spring and summer months. The Transportation Department and airlines routinely pointed fingers at one other for the problems. Airline CEOs claimed that understaffing in air traffic control was to blame for the delays, whereas Buttigieg placed the responsibility on the airlines themselves.
More than 15,000 Southwest flights were canceled when the airline’s internal systems crashed under the strain of adjusting to last-minute schedule adjustments brought on by severe weather over the peak Christmas travel period.
Southwest canceled some Wednesday flights before they were even disrupted. As of Wednesday evening’s 5 pm, FlightAware reported that over 400 of its flights had been canceled, or 10% of its schedule, and that over half, more than 1,900, had been delayed.
About half of America’s mainline flights were late, and the same was true for Delta and United. Many of their regional partners were likewise significantly late.