Air travel across US, Southern California jolted by mammoth computer outage

The mammoth U.S. aircraft fleet was grounded for hours by a cascading outage in a government system that delayed or cancelled thousands of flights across the U.S. on Wednesday.

Flights out of Los Angeles International Airport, Hollywood Burbank Airport, Long Beach Airport and others in Southern California were affected by the computer outage. Long lines were reported at LAX as flights were delayed or cancelled and fliers scrambled in response.

As of 5:30 a.m., there were more than 3,700 flights within, into and out of the United States that were delayed and more than 500 flights were canceled. Flights were cleared to resume at 6 a.m., and some flights were in the air as soon as 6:30 a.m., but there was much work to be done to get the air network back on track, with passengers lined up seeking new travel plans.

A spokesman at Los Angeles International Airport said there were 11 cancelations overnight and that as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, 223 flights were delayed, triggering myriad readjustments in scheduling.

“It’s a going to be a moving target most of the day,” said LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery. “We had a handful of flights from overnight, about five, that were not able to get out and those passengers were accommodated. The flow is normal now but airlines will be adjusting their schedules.”

Montgomery added: “The system has been back online for “a couple hours.”

The White House initially said that there was no evidence of a cyberattack behind the outage that ruined travel plans for millions of passengers. President Joe Biden said Wednesday morning that he’s directed the Department of Transportation to investigate.

Whatever the cause, the outage revealed how dependent the world’s largest economy is on air travel, and how dependent air travel is on an antiquated computer system called the Notice to Air Missions, or NOTAM.

Kate Kuykendall, spokesperson for the Long Beach Airport, said at 9 a.m.  that two earlier fights were canceled as a result of the issue, affecting some 300 passengers, but that systems had been restored.

“We expect minimal delays but are still telling passengers to check their flight schedules,” she said.One of the flights was to Houston, she said, but she did not have the destination of the other flight.

The website, she noted, also shows two cancellations of flights to Hawaii but she added those were due to an unrelated issue.

“Our understanding is it is resolved as of right now but there may be some sluggishness in catching up,” Kuykendall said.

Hollywood Burbank airport by mid-morning reported systems were running “normally” but passengers were being advised to check in for updates on their flights throughout the day.

Departures out of Atlanta and Newark, N.J., have resumed, the FAA said, and flights across the country are gradually beginning to resume as of 6:30 a.m.

In a notice on the FAA website, it says its Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system has “failed” and led to the grounding of flights. The NOTAM system notifies workers of flight operations of essential information.

“Technicians are currently working to restore the system and there is no estimate for restoration of service at this time,” the notice said.

The FAA posted on Twitter that it is working to fully restore the NOTAM system and expect flights to resume at 6 a.m. Pacific time.

“The FAA has ordered airlines to pause all domestic departures until 9 a.m. Eastern Time to allow the agency to validate the integrity of flight and safety information,” the FAA tweeted.

All flights in the sky during the outage are safe to land, the FAA tweeted. A notice alerts pilots about closed runways, equipment outages, and other potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the flight, according to the FAA.

United Airlines posted on Twitter that is has temporarily delayed all domestic flights and will issue an update when “we learn more from the FAA.”

A number of airports outside the United States are operating as normal, according to media reports.

Before commencing a flight, pilots are required to consult NOTAMs, 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 moved online.

The NOTAM system broke down late Tuesday, leading to more than 1,000 flight cancellations and 7,000 were delayed flights by midday Wednesday, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

The chaos is expected to grow as backups compound. More than 21,000 flights were scheduled to take off in the U.S. today, mostly domestic trips, and about 1,840 international flights expected to fly to the U.S., according to aviation data firm Cirium.

“We are going to see the ripple effects from that, this morning’s delays through the system during the day,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an interview on CNN. “Now we have to understand how this could have happened in the first place. Why the usual redundancies that would stop it from being that disruptive did not stop it from being disruptive this time.”

Longtime aviation insiders could not recall an outage of such magnitude caused by a technology breakdown. Some compared it to the nationwide shutdown of airspace after the terror attacks of September 2001.

“Periodically there have been local issues here or there, but this is pretty significant historically,” said Tim Campbell, a former senior vice president of air operations at American Airlines and now a consultant in Minneapolis.

Campbell said there has long been concern about the Federal Aviation Administration’s technology, and not just the NOTAM system.

“So much of their systems are old mainframe systems that are generally reliable but they are out of date,” he said.

The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report

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