Flight disruptions cascade over US after computer failure

The FAA is working to restore the so-called Notice to Air Missions system.

(Seth Wenig | AP) An ad shows many delayed flights at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. A computer failure at the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday grounded hundreds of U.S. flights with delays that are rapidly cascading through the system at airports across the country.

New York • Thousands of flight delays and cancellations hit the United States early Wednesday after a computer failure led to a grounding of all departing planes by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA is working to restore the so-called Notice to Air Missions system.

Before commencing a flight, pilots must consult NOTAMs, or Notices to Air Missions, detailing potential adverse effects on flights, from runway construction to potential icing. The system used to be phone-based, with pilots calling specific flight service stations for information, but it’s now gone online.

While the White House initially said there was no evidence of a cyberattack, President Joe Biden said, “We don’t know,” and told reporters he had directed the Department of Transportation to investigate the cause of the disruption.

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The stop order was lifted just before 9am but delays and cancellations are expected. Departure gates at major airports are filled with planes that have been grounded for hours. According to aeronautical data company Cirium, more than 21,000 flights are expected to depart from the United States today, mostly domestic, and about 1,840 international flights are expected to fly to the United States.

Nearly 5,000 flights were delayed and nearly 900 were canceled by around 10am

The FAA’s stop order affected almost all flights operated by shippers and passenger airlines.

Some medical flights were authorized and the cancellation had no impact on military operations or US Defense Forces mobility.

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 Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told him they still hadn’t figured out what went wrong.

“I just spoke to Buttigieg. You don’t know what the cause is. But I spoke to him on the phone for about 10 minutes,” Biden said. “I told him to get in touch with me directly if they found out. Air traffic can still land safely, just not yet take off. We don’t know what caused this.”

Buttigieg said in a tweet that he’s in touch with the FAA and is monitoring the situation.

Delays and cancellations that began on the East Coast quickly spread west, with disruptions at nearly every major US airport.

The FAA said it is working to restore its Notice to Air Missions system.

“We are now conducting final validation checks and reloading the system,” the FAA said. “Operations throughout the National Airspace System are affected.”

Julia Macpherson was on a United Airlines flight from Sydney to Los Angeles on Wednesday when she learned of possible delays.

“When I was airborne, I got word 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’s landed in Los Angeles, she still has a connection in Denver on her flight to Jacksonville, Fla.

She said there were no announcements about the FAA issue on the flight.

Macpherson said she has 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.

Failures in the NOTAM system appear to be rare.

John Cox, a former pilot and flight safety expert, said the airline industry has been talking about trying to modernize the NOTAM system for years, but he doesn’t know the age of the servers used by the FAA.

He cannot say whether a cyber attack is possible.

“I’ve been flying for 53 years. I’ve never heard of the system breaking down like that,” Cox said. “So something unusual happened.”

According to FAA advisories, the NOTAM system went down at 8:28 p.m. ET Tuesday, preventing new or changed notices from being distributed to pilots. The FAA resorted to a phone hotline to maintain overnight departures, but as traffic increased during the day it overwhelmed the phone backup system.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said U.S. military flights were unaffected because the military has its own NOTAMS system, which is separate from the FAA system, and the military’s system is unaffected by the outage .

European flights to the US appeared largely unaffected.

Irish carrier Aer Lingus said services to the US would continue and Dublin Airport’s website showed its flights to Newark, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles were running as scheduled.

“Aer Lingus plans to operate all transatlantic flights as scheduled today,” the airline said in a prepared statement. “We will continue monitoring, but we do not expect any disruption to our services due to the technical issue in the United States.”

This is just the latest concern for US travelers, who faced flight cancellations over the holiday season due to winter storms and a staffing technology outage at Southwest Airlines. They also encountered long queues, lost luggage, and cancellations and delays over the summer, as travel demand slumped from the COVID-19 pandemic and airport and airline staffing cuts in the US and Europe.

The FAA said it will provide regular updates as it makes progress.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/01/11/flight-disruptions-cascade/ Flight disruptions cascade over US after computer failure

Justin Scacco

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