The US aviation sector struggled to get back to normal on Wednesday after a nationwide shutdown by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) due to a computer problem brought the entire US to a standstill for 90 minutes. departing flights.
So far, nearly 9,400 flights have been delayed and more than 1,300 canceled, according to FlightAware, marking the country’s first flight disruption in about two decades. Many industry officials compared the grounding to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
The total number of canceled flights exceeded 10,700 and was still rising, but airline officials said they were confident they would be mostly back to normal 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 ) all reported 40% of delays or cancellations on Wednesday or more flights.
FAA officials told congressional aides they believed the outage was due to a corrupted digital file that affected both the main system and its backup, said people familiar with the review who asked not to be identified. FAA officials previously said they found no evidence of a cyberattack.
Earlier, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that the FAA was looking into “the original source of the error or corrupted files.”
The White House said President Joe Biden still has confidence in Buttigieg.
Buttigieg told CNN that the ground stop was “the right call” to make sure messages were being sent correctly and that there was no direct evidence of a cyber attack.
Buttigieg told reporters that the backup system went into effect on Tuesday, but questions were raised about the system’s performance, which led to a full system reboot and then prompted the FAA to issue a ground stop around 7:30 a.m. ET (1230 GMT). It was canceled just before 9:00 a.m. EST.
The FAA’s advisory said the system, which provides so-called Air Mission Statements with safety messages to pilots and others, was shut down on Tuesday around At 15:30 EST it failed, which meant that new messages could not be processed.
The break came at a typically slow time after the holiday travel season, but demand remains strong as travel continues to recover to near pre-pandemic levels.
That could affect traffic through Friday, said Capt. Chris Torres, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association.
“This thing was canceled at 9 a.m. Eastern. That doesn’t mean the problem stops at 9. It’s going to have ripple effects,” said Torres, whose members fly on American Airlines.
One problem airlines face is trying to get in and out of crowded gates, which causes further delays. Crew time limit rules can also be a factor.
At the airport in Greenville, South Carolina, Justin Kennedy left a business trip to nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. He described the confusion as airline employees and many passengers were initially unaware of the FAA’s actions and flight delays.
“I was sitting in the dining area of Chick-fil-A, which had a good view of the TSA exit,” said the 30-year-old information technology worker. “I saw at least four people running to the gate because they thought they were going to miss their flight, only to get back to the food court after catching their breath.”
‘CATASTROPHIC’ FAILURE TO RECOVERY
US airline customers have few alternatives. Traveling distances are too long and the country’s passenger rail network is narrow compared to other countries’ rail networks.
The US Travel Association, which represents the travel industry, including airlines, called the failure of the FAA’s system “catastrophic.”
The outage appeared to have limited impact on transatlantic routes.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Marie Cantwell, a Democrat, said the panel would investigate. Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the failure “totally unacceptable.”
Shares of US carriers rose after the market opened as flights resumed. The S&P 500 Airline Index (.SPLRCAIR) closed down 0.9%.
The collapse of Southwest’s operations at the end of last year stranded thousands of people.
The DOT, the FAA’s parent agency, criticized Southwest’s failures and pressured the airline to compensate passengers. Buttigieg on Wednesday rejected a proposal that the FAA compensate travelers for delays caused by the outage.
The FAA experienced another major computer problem on Jan. 2 that caused significant delays to Florida flights.
Package delivery companies FedEx ( FDX.N ), United Parcel Service ( UPS.N ) and DHL ( DPWGn.DE ), which rely heavily on planes, said they experienced minimal disruption on Wednesday.
Separately Wednesday afternoon, air traffic control manager NAV Canada reported a roughly 90-minute outage in a similar messaging system used in Canada, but said the problem had not caused any flight delays. The agency said it does not believe the outage is related to the FAA, but is investigating.
Ria Malhotra, a 29-year-old doctor from Wewaukee, New Jersey, was scheduled to fly from Newark to Las Vegas for a medical conference, but her flight was first delayed and then rescheduled. She then wonders how much she will fly.
“I just don’t want to deal with this process anymore because I feel like flight delays are more the norm than the exception,” she said.
Reporting by Doina Chiaku and David Shepardson in Washington, Abhijit Ganapavaram in Bangalore, Jamie Fried in Sydney and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago Additional reporting by Nathan Gomez and Priyamvada C in Bangalore, Alison Lampert in Montreal, Doinsol Oladipo in Newark, New Gerard Kerr in New York, Ismail Shaquille in Ottawa and Steve Holland in Washington Writing Shailesh Kuber, Alexander Smith and Ben Klaiman Editing by Edmund Blair, Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis
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