Thousands of flights canceled after FAA computer glitch

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Unless you’re on vacation in a tropical paradise and desperate for an excuse to stay On vacation in a tropical paradise, this week will be an absolute nightmare for airline travelers.

About 8,000 flights were delayed and more than 1,000 were canceled outright because of an overnight glitch in a key Federal Aviation Administration computer system Wednesday morning, according to flight tracker FlightAware. That raises a tricky question: If the FAA is tasked with holding airlines accountable for massive outages — like, say, the delays and cancellations courtesy of Southwest last week — then will the FAA be held responsible if found guilty?

Wrong on a plane

The FAA’s catastrophic failure was caused by a temporary outage of the agency’s Notice to Air Mission system, a critical tool for keeping pilots informed of airport conditions across the country. Without it, flight crews can be kept in the dark about runway closures and other on-the-ground hazards and obstacles. By early Wednesday morning — 7:20 a.m. ET — the agency ordered a nationwide “ground stop” for all commercial flights, marking the first nationwide closure of FAA airspace since 9/11, according to FlyersRights, the largest U.S. non-profit. Airline consumer advocacy group.

The FAA lifted the stoppage within two hours, but airline schedules are like dominoes — massive cancellations and delays today could cascade through the rest of the week. It’s a huge headache that critics and experts are already claiming could have been avoided. “It really shows the weakness and unreliability of not only airline computer systems, but the FAA,” Flyerrights president Paul Hudson told The Daily Upside. “Flyerrights are insisting that [agency’s] Computer systems have been updated due to a whole series of outages over the past few years. We think all these systems need to be stress tested.”

With NOTAM back online, airlines and passengers alike are scrambling to pick up the pieces:

  • Delta, United, and American Airlines have all already announced that they will waive the price difference for some customers who choose to change their flights on Wednesday — though which customers and which flights are eligible for such waivers appear to vary from case to case. Basis of the case, The The Wall Street Journal Report.
  • Although most airlines offer vouchers for meals or lodging to customers affected by cancellations or long delays, they usually do so only when it is the fault of their own organizational failure. With the FAA being blamed this time, most stranded passengers are unlikely to receive similar compensation; Additionally, federal agencies are generally immune from lawsuits based on negligence.

Could it be worse? The only passengers less amused than sleeping on an airport terminal floor this week were a group of 563 Amtrak passengers stranded on a stalled train in rural South Carolina with limited food supplies for more than 20 hours. The trip, which left DC on Monday evening for a 17-hour trek to Florida, finally reached its destination on Wednesday morning. Next time we travel, we’ll opt for a road trip.


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