A computer outage at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) brought flights to a standstill across the U.S. on Wednesday, with hundreds of delays quickly cascading through the system at airports nationwide.
The FAA ordered all departing flights grounded early Wednesday morning, but lifted that order just before 9 a.m. Eastern after several hours.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted that the “FAA has determined that the safety system affected by the overnight outage is fully restored, and the nationwide ground stop will be lifted effective immediately. I have directed an after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps.”
Prior to the announcement, delays and cancellations had been accelerating rapidly, with more than 3,700 stuck on the ground around 8:30 a.m. Eastern, more than all the delayed flights for the entirety of the previous day, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. More than 550 fights were canceled, and that number was ticking higher quickly.
The groundings impacted almost all aircraft, including shipping and passenger flights.
More than 21,000 flights were scheduled to take off in the U.S. on Wednesday, mostly domestic trips, and about 1,840 international flights were expected to fly to the U.S., according to aviation data firm Cirium.
Some medical flights could still get clearance and the outage was not impacting military operations.
What caused the FAA outage?
While the White House initially said that there is no evidence of a cyberattack, President Joe Biden said, “we don’t know,” and told reporters he’s directed the Department of Transportation to investigate the cause of the disruption.
President Joe 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 Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told him they still had not identified what went wrong.
“I just spoke to Buttigieg. They don’t know what the cause is. But I was on the phone with him about 10 minutes,” Biden said. “I told him to report directly to me when they find out ... We don’t know what the cause of it is.”
Most delays were concentrated along the East Coast but had begun to spread west. Inbound international flights into Miami International Airport continued to land, but all departures had been delayed since 6:30 a.m., said airport spokesman Greg Chin.
Julia Macpherson was on a United Airlines flight from Sydney to Los Angeles on Wednesday 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 lands in Los Angeles, she still has a connection in Denver on her flight to Jacksonville, Florida.
She said there had been no announcements on the flight about the FAA issue.
Macpherson said she had 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.
The system affected is called the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMs)
The FAA worked to restore what is known as the Notice to Air Missions system.
Before commencing a flight, pilots are required to consult NOTAMs, or Notices to Air Missions, which list potential adverse impacts on flights, from runway construction to the potential for icing. The system used to be telephone-based, with pilots calling dedicated flight service stations for the information but has now moved online.
According to FAA advisories, the NOTAM system failed at 8:28 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday preventing new or amended notices from being distributed to pilots. The FAA resorted to a telephone hotline in an effort to keep departures flying overnight, but as daytime traffic picked up it overwhelmed the telephone backup system.
European flights into the U.S. appeared to be largely unaffected.
Irish carrier Aer Lingus said services to the U.S. continue, and Dublin Airport’s website showed that its flights to Newark, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles were running on schedule.
“Aer Lingus plan to operate all transatlantic flights as scheduled today,” the carrier said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to monitor but we do not anticipate any disruption to our services arising from the technical issue in the United States.”
This is just the latest headache for travelers in the U.S. who faced flight cancellations over the holidays amid winter storms and a breakdown with staffing technology at Southwest Airlines. They also ran into long lines, lost baggage, and cancellations and delays over the summer as travel demand roared back from the COVID-19 pandemic and ran into staffing cutbacks at airports and airlines in the U.S. and Europe.