Computer problems disrupt air travel

Damaged database forces airlines to cancel or delay flights, leaving flyers scrambling nationwide.

By DONNA LITTLEJOHN | SCNG

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

An Alaska Airlines plane crosses over the Sepulveda Tunnel at LAX on Wednesday. Many flights around the nation were either canceled or delayed because of a computer outage. The FAA says a damaged database created the problem. PHOTO BY AXELKOESTER

The Federal Aviation Administration said preliminary indications “traced the outage to a damaged database file.” The agency said it would take steps to avoid another similar disruption.

Flights out of Los Angeles International, Hollywood Burbank, John Wayne, Long Beach, Ontario International and other Southern California airports were affected by the sweeping computer shutdown. Long lines were reported at LAX as flights were delayed or canceled and flyers scrambled in response.

The Notice to Air Missions system broke down late Tuesday and was not fixed until mid-morning Wednesday, leading to more than 1,200 flight cancellations and more than8,500 delays by early afternoon on the East Coast, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

At LAX, there were 26 flight cancellations as of late morning, along with more than 350 delayed flights in and out of the airport, according to the flight-tracking website. Nationally, there were more than 9,600 delays of flights within, into or out of the United States, along with roughly 1,300 cancellations, according to FlightAware.

Hollywood Burbank Airport had 62 delayed flights and 19 cancellations and John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana had 104 delays and nine cancellations. Long Beach had 38 delays and 10 cancellations.

“It’s been a cascading effect across the country,” Hollywood Burbank airport spokesman Mike Christensen said. “Hopefully, the cancellations will slow down.”

Ontario International Airport felt a small shockwave from the shutdown. The airport reported 41 delayed flights and five cancellations as of 10:30 a.m., according to the FlightAware website.

San Bernardino International Airport was unaffected by the outage according to Director of Aviation, Mark Gibbs. “Flights to and from SBD continued to operate safely and smoothly during the FAA equipment outage,” Gibbs said.

It’s been a tough year so far for travelers, with Wednesday’s woes coming on the heels of the holiday havoc endured by Southwest Airlines.

Passengers 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.

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

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.

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 previously was telephone-based, with pilots calling dedicated flight service stations for the information, but it has moved online.

“There is just a lot of frustration; a lot of confusion,” said Ryan Ososki, who was trying to fly from Washington, D.C., 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.”

Valerie Daniel and her daughter, Madison, got to LAX early Wednesday to assess their options with Southwest to return home to Dallas.

“We were just coming to see if we had any other options to get us home sooner,” she said.

Daniel’s flight had been delayed three hours and she was worried about getting back to work after she trekked to L.A. to support TCU in its college football national championship loss to Georgia at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Monday night.

“When we found out about the whole FAA thing, we expected it,” Madison said. “It has been a little bit of an inconvenience. I just would like to know what was behind the delay, why the computers system stopped working.”

Shari Lievlich and Patrick Van Airk flew into LAX from New York after their 7 a.m. flight was delayed two hours.

Lievlich said her group didn’t know what was going on with their flight until they got to the airport.

“We had no information about it beforehand,” she said.

“We got lucky it was only delayed,” said Van Airk, adding that the couple watched movies to pass the time.

Tina Marrs flew from Missouri to LAX to visit her daughter a bit later then she had planned.  Kansas City flights were delayed almost two hours, she said.

“We got on the plane at 7 a.m. but we had to get off the plane and wait until around 8:30a.m.,” Mars said. “Once we saw that the FAA shut down things, we knew that the flight would either be delayed or maybe even canceled. It was nice to only be delayed.”

“It’s a going to be a moving target most of the day,” LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said. “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.”

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.

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 FAA’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.

Not everyone was frantic over the delays. Anna Chang, from L.A., said she got a text in the morning that her trip to Seattle had been delayed.

She arrived on time to LAX but the flight was still on hold, so she decided to eat lunch and check again later.

“I understand,” she said, “I know that this morning it was because of technical problems. Since I’m traveling for leisure, I have time and I understand.”

For customers and airline leaders alike, patience has been a required coping tool during weeks of travel challenges.

Avelo Airlines has been among companies facing obstacles, including weather-related issues, Air traffic control problems and the recent FAA computer outage that grounded U.S. flights for hours.

But Andrew Levy, the airline’s chairman and CEO, said the company’s biggest challenge has been rising fuel costs.

“Fuel prices have remained stubbornly high,” he said. “We’ve seen a 150% to 200% increase in some cases. Our fuel costs for the whole year of 2022 were about 50% higher than normal.”

Avelo is about to add Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Wilmington Airport in Delaware to its network of airports that already includes Hollywood Burbank Airport, Southern Connecticut’s Tweed-New Haven Airport and Orlando International Airport.

With those new additions, the airline will serve 34 U.S. destinations, including such cities as Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Chicago, Nashville, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., and Lexington, Kentucky.

Levy figures 2023 will be a good year for the airline industry.

I think business is back to normal for the most part, although travel to Asia is not what it used to be — especially in China, ” Levy said. “But travel demand is quite high. People will just have to get used to paying more to travel than they did pre-pandemic.”

Staff writers Kevin Smith, Christina Merino, Erika Ritchie and Jordan Darling, The Associated Press and City News Service, contributed to this report.

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