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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
David Shepardson

US flights resume as ‘system error’ gets the blame for air chaos

A Delta Airlines plane comes in for a landing in front of the Manhattan skyline

US flights were yesterday slowly resuming and a ‘ground stop’ order was lifted after America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) scrambled to fix a system outage that had forced a halt to all US departing flights.

More than 7,300 flights were delayed and 1,100 cancelled in the first US-wide grounding of flights in about two decades, said industry officials.

The outage might cause delays through today, if not longer, according to several airlines.

The cause of the problem with a pilot-alerting system was unclear, but US officials said they had so far found no evidence of a cyberattack.

US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said an issue with overnight “irregularities” with safety messages sent to pilots prompted the outage.

He said the ground stop was the “right call” to ensure messages moved correctly, and repeated there was no direct evidence of a cyberattack.

The outage appeared to have limited impact on transatlantic routes, with European carriers including Lufthansa, Air France, Iberia and British Airways saying flights continued in and out of the US. Virgin Atlantic cautioned some flights might be delayed.

The outage occurred at a typically slow time, after the Christmas travel season – but demand for flights remains strong as travel continues to recover to near pre-pandemic levels.

The FAA said in a tweet that normal air traffic operations were resuming after they had earlier ordered airlines to pause all domestic departures once its pilot alerting system crashed.

Flights already in the air were allowed to continue to their destinations.

The outage could affect traffic until the weekend, said Captain Chris Torres of the Allied Pilots Association.

“This thing was lifted at 9am Eastern. That doesn’t mean the problem stops at 9am. This is going to cause ripple effects,” he said.

One issue airlines are facing is trying to get planes in and out of crowded gates, which is causing further delays. Crew time limit rules may also play a factor.

Shares of US carriers rebounded as flights resumed. The S&P 500 airline index was up 1pc in afternoon trading.

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

“America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades,” said Geoff Freeman of the US Travel Association. “We call on federal policymakers to modernize our vital air travel infrastructure.”

US travellers have few alternatives to flying. Driving distances are too great, and the country’s passenger rail network is poor compared to those in other countries.

An operational meltdown at Southwest at the end of last year stranded thousands. A severe winter storm right before Christmas, coupled with the Texas-based carrier’s dated technology, led to over 16,000 flight cancellations.

The US department of transport, FAA’s parent agency, criticised Southwest’s failures and pressured the airline to compensate passengers. Buttigieg yesterday rejected suggestions that the FAA should reimburse travellers for delays caused by yesterday’s issue.

The FAA suffered another significant computer issue on January 2 that led to significant delays in Florida flights.

A total of 21,464 US flights had been scheduled to depart various US airports yesterday, with a capacity of nearly 2.9 million passengers.

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