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Departures resume after FAA lifts ground stop

by Siddharth Philip, Mary Schlangenstein and Alan Levin, Bloomberg News/TNS
| January 11, 2023 2:15 PM

U.S. flight departures began resuming early Wednesday after an overnight outage to a key air-traffic system prompted authorities to ground planes nationwide.

The Federal Aviation Administration said normal air traffic operations were gradually returning as it lifted the ground stop shortly before 9 a.m. Eastern time. The disruption stemmed from problems with the Notice to Air Missions system, or Notam, which conveys advisory information essential for flight operations.

The dramatic system disruption is one of the most significant in recent decades for the FAA and comes after a year of tests of the nation’s air system as the return from COVID-19 stressed airlines and air-traffic operations.

Carriers including United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. said travelers should expect schedule changes, including delays and cancellations, even as flight operations began resuming. Flight-tracking website FlightAware showed 4,314 delays for U.S. flights at 9:22 a.m. Eastern time.

The grounding potentially could affect more than 2 million passengers who are booked on 19,621 domestic flights, according to aviation data provider Cirium. That doesn’t include travelers on 1,843 international flights set to arrive in the U.S. Wednesday.

The computer system that shares the notices to pilots, airlines and other users began developing problems late Tuesday night and had to be completely taken down in the early hours of Wednesday, said a person familiar with FAA’s actions who asked not to be identified discussing the situation as it develops. FAA technical workers have been troubleshooting the system since then, the person said.

There was no indication that the outage affected the FAA’s ability to track and guide aircraft, or that it caused any safety incidents.

Air traffic at the Grant County International Airport was unaffected, according to Port of Moses Lake Executive Director Don Kersey, since the GCIA hosts primarily training and air cargo flights and has no scheduled passenger air traffic.

“There was no impact here,” Kersey said in an email to the Columbia Basin Herald.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the White House said Wednesday in a tweet. The president ordered a full investigation, but there is “no evidence of a cyberattack at this point.”

“They don’t know what the cause is,” Biden told reporters.

By early Wednesday, passengers due to fly domestically began reporting delays on social media, and United said it would temporarily ground flights.

The biggest European airlines said they were largely unaffected by the disruptions, with flights from British Airways, Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa AG operating normally even as domestic U.S. flights were halted, the carriers said.

Given the early hour of the disruption in the U.S., international flights were either still on the ground or nowhere near U.S. air space, giving pilots more turnaround time to react.

Shares of most major U.S. airlines were down slightly before the start of regular trading in New York.

Chester Dawson and Charles H. Featherstone contributed to this report.

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