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US air transport recovers after FAA computer crash

US air transport recovers after FAA computer crash

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WASHINGTON/CHICAGO, Jan 11 (Reuters) – U.S. flights slowly resumed takeoffs and a ground shutdown was lifted after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tried to fix an overnight system outage that grounded all departing U.S. flights.

More than 6,000 flights were delayed and nearly 1,000 canceled, according to the FlightAware website, as officials said recovery from the shutdown would take hours. The numbers kept growing.

The cause of the pilot alert system problem that delayed thousands of flights in the United States is not clear, but US officials said they have so far found no evidence of a cyberattack.

The outage 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.

“Normal air traffic operations are gradually resuming in the US after an overnight disruption of the Notice to Air Missions system, which provides safety information to flight crews. The ground restraint has been removed. We continue to search for the cause of the original problem,” the FAA tweeted.

The number of affected flights increased even after the ground suspension was lifted. One of the problems airlines face is trying to get planes in and out of crowded gates, which causes additional delays.

At an airport in Greenville, South Carolina, Justin Kennedy abandoned a business trip to nearby Charlotte. He said there was confusion because airline officials did not know what the FAA was saying and many passengers were initially unaware of the delays.

“I sat in a Chick-fil-A dining area that had a good view of the TSA gate,” said the 30-year-old information technology worker. “I saw at least four people sprinting to the gates because they thought they were going to miss their flight, only to return to the food court out of breath.”

RIPPLE EFFECTS

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

“This thing was called off at 9 a.m. Eastern. That doesn’t mean the problem stops at 9 a.m. It will cause ripple effects,” said Torres, whose members fly for American Airlines. “The end result of this will be very similar to major weather events.”

The FAA previously ordered airlines to pause all domestic flights after that pilot warning system crashed and the agency had to perform a hard reset around 2 a.m., officials said. Flights already in the air can continue to their destinations.

US President Joe Biden ordered The Department of Transportation to investigate and said the cause of the failure is unknown. Asked if a cyberattack was behind the outage, Biden told reporters, “We don’t know.”

Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised “a process to identify root causes and recommend next steps”.

Shares of US carriers were initially lower in premarket trading on Wednesday, but most rose after the market opened in positive territory as flights resumed.

After falling 19% last year – its third straight year of decline – the S&P 500 airline index (.SPLRCAIR) started strong this year with 15.5% growth as passengers return to the skies.

Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) shares were flat, while Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N)United Airlines (UAL.O) and American Airlines (AAL.O) stocks rose. JetBlue (JBLU.O) and Spirit (SAVE.N) each rose about 2%.

A trade group representing the US travel industry, including airlines, called the failure of the FAA system “catastrophic.”

“America’s transportation network is in desperate need of significant improvements,” Jeff Freeman, president of the American Travel Association, said in a statement. “We urge federal policymakers to modernize our vital air transportation infrastructure.”

“TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE”

For long-haul US travelers, the alternatives are few. Driving distances are too long and the country’s rail passenger network is thin compared to those in Europe and Asia.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, said the panel would I’m investigating. “We will investigate what caused this outage and how redundancy plays a role in preventing future outages,” she said.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz called the failure “totally unacceptable” and said the problem should lead to reforms as part of the FAA’s reauthorization by September.

The FAA system outage comes weeks after an operational meltdown at Southwest late last year left thousands stranded. A severe winter storm just before Christmas, combined with the Texas-based carrier’s outdated technology, led to more than 16,000 flight cancellations.

DOT, the FAA’s parent agency, criticized Southwest’s failures and pressured the airline to compensate passengers. There is no legal requirement that the FAA compensate passengers for flight delays caused by the agency’s computer problems.

The FAA suffered another important computer problem on Jan. 2, causing significant flight delays in Florida. A malfunction of a system known as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) used to control air traffic prompted the FAA to issue a ground stop order, slowing traffic to Florida airports.

A NOTAM is a notice containing information that is essential to personnel involved in flight operations but is not known early enough to be otherwise published. A ground hold is an air traffic control measure that slows or stops an aircraft at an airport.

A total of 21,464 US flights were scheduled to take off on Wednesday with a capacity of nearly 2.9 million passengers, data from Cirium showed.

Rodney Allen was on his way with friends to vacation in Puerto Rico from Cincinnati but was stranded in Newark.

“After we landed, the passengers on the plane said the flights were cancelled,” said the 25-year-old entrepreneur. He still had a chance to check in on his flight to Puerto Rico, but his friends were offered travel credits.

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 S in Bengaluru, Alison Lampert in Montreal, Doinsola Oladipo in Newark, NJ, Sinead Carew in New York and Steve Holland in Washington Writing by Shailesh Kuber and Alexander Smith Editing by Edmund Blair and Nick Ziminski

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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