Thousands of flights delayed after computer outage at FAA

An overnight computer outage at the Federal Aviation Administration has scrambled travelers’ plans, leading to thousands of delayed flights on Wednesday.

The FAA halted all flight departures from the US shortly after 7 am Eastern time, when a system called NOTAM, which offers safety and other information to pilots, broke down. The FAA restored the system a little before 9 am, when flights were allowed to resume.

“Normal air traffic operations are resuming gradually,” the agency tweeted at the time.

Still, the chaos lingered. By Wednesday evening, more than 2,800 US flights were canceled and more than 9,700 US flights were delayed, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. Airports in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta saw 30% to 40% of delayed flights.

In a statement Wednesday night, the FAA said its preliminary investigation traced the outage to a “damaged database file,” but has found “no evidence of a cyber attack.”

“The FAA is working diligently to further pinpoint the causes of this issue and take all needed steps to prevent this kind of disruption from happening again,” the agency added.

Secretary of Transportation Peter Buttigieg tweeted that the FAA is conducting a “system review” in its direction to ensure a similar outage does not occur again.

Communication breakdown

The shutdown was traced back to a failure of a communication system called NOTAM, or Notice to Air Missions. Before a flight takes off, pilots and airline dispatchers must review the notices, which include details about weather, runway closures or construction and other information that could affect the flight. The system is separate from air traffic control, but is still considered a “vital safety system,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.

The system failed on Tuesday night, when it stopped accepting new or updated information, according to an FAA advisory. The agency switched to using a phone line for overnight updates, but stopped when daytime traffic picked up, overwhelming the phone system.

The outage did not affect military flights, which have their own notice system, and some medical flights were cleared.

“There was a systems issue overnight that led to a ground stop because of the way safety information was moving through the system,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told a news conference. Even though the problem was fixed quickly, he warned travelers to expect to see effects “rippling through the system.”

Passengers frustrated

Passengers scrambled to rearrange trips; many said they had trouble finding out how long the delays would last.

“There is just a lot of frustration, a lot of confusion,” said Ryan Ososki, who was trying to fly from Washington, DC, to California for a conference. “I’m back to an hour and a half delayed (and) still unclear as to whether or not I should be boarding because I’d now miss my connection flight.”

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

“As I was up in the air, I got news 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 landed in Los Angeles, she still had a connection in Denver on her way to Jacksonville, Florida.

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

Cause still unknown

As of Wednesday afternoon, no definite cause was pinpointed for the system’s failure.

“We do not have evidence this outage was caused by a cyberattack,” Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday afternoon, adding that the Department of Transportation would investigate the outage.

Lawmakers promised further investigations. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the committee would investigate as it prepares for legislation re-authorizing the FAA, which comes up every five years.

Rep. Sam Graves, the incoming chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the incident “highlights a huge vulnerability in our air transportation system.”

“I have many questions about what transpired today, and I expect the FAA to provide a full briefing to members of Congress as soon as they learn more,” the Missouri Republican said in a statement. “I will also be leading an oversight letter with my colleagues to make sure that we know what went wrong, who’s responsible, and how this is going to be prevented in the future.”

Wednesday’s breakdown was the latest headache for travelers in the US who faced weather-related flight cancellations over the holidays and a broad breakdown at Southwest Airlines.

— CBS News’ Kathryn Krupnik and the Associated Press contributed reporting.

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