By David Shepardson, Rajesh Kumar Singh and Abhijith Ganapavaram
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) -The U.S. aviation sector was struggling to return to normal following a nationwide ground stop imposed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) early Wednesday over a computer issue that forced a 90-minute halt to all U.S. departing flights.
More than 8,200 flights have been delayed so far and over 1,200 canceled according to FlightAware in the first national grounding of flights in about two decades, industry officials said. Many officials compared the grounding to what occurred after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The total number of flights was still rising but airline officials expressed confidence that normal operations could largely return by Thursday, absent new issues.
The cause of the problem with a pilot-alerting messaging system was unclear, but U.S. officials said they had so far found no evidence of a cyberattack. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said an issue with safety messages sent to pilots prompted the outage.
The “immediate focus is technical, understanding exactly how this happened, why the redundancies and the backups that were built into the system were not able to prevent the level of disruption,” Buttigieg said.
He said the ground stop was the “right call” to make sure messages were moving correctly and there is no direct evidence of cyberattack.
Buttigieg told reporters a backup system went into effect on Tuesday but questions were raised about the system’s performance, which led to a complete reboot of the system and then prompted the FAA to issue the ground stop around 7:30 a.m.
An FAA advisory said the system that provides so-called “Notices to Air Missions” with safety messages for pilots and others failed around 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, which meant no new messages could be processed.
The outage occurred at a typically slow time after the holiday travel season, but demand remains strong as travel continues to recover to near pre-pandemic levels.
The outage could impact traffic through Friday, said Captain Chris Torres, vice president of the Allied Pilots Association.
“This thing was lifted at 9 a.m. Eastern. That doesn’t mean the problem stops at 9 a.m. This is going to cause ripple effects,” said Torres, whose members fly for American Airlines.
One issue airlines are facing is trying to get planes in and out of crowded gates, which is causing further delays. Crews’ time-limit rules may also play a factor.
At an airport in Greenville, South Carolina, Justin Kennedy abandoned a work trip to nearby Charlotte. He described confusion as airline employees weren’t aware what the FAA was saying, and many passengers were initially unaware of the delays.
“I sat in a Chick-fil-A dining area that had a good view of the TSA exit,” the 30-year-old information technology employee said. “I saw at least four people sprinting to gates because they thought they were going to miss their flight, only to come back to the food court, out of breath.”
U.S. airline customers have few alternatives. Driving distances are too great, and the country’s passenger rail network is thin compared to those in other countries.
A trade group representing the U.S. travel industry, including airlines, called the FAA system failure “catastrophic.”
“America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades,” Geoff Freeman, president of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement. “We call on federal policymakers to modernize our vital air travel infrastructure.’
The outage appeared to have limited impact on transatlantic routes, with European carriers including Lufthansa, Air France, Iberia and British Airways saying flights are continuing in and out of the United States. Virgin Atlantic cautioned some flights might be delayed.
Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, said the panel would investigate. Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the failure “completely unacceptable” and the issue should lead to reforms as part of the FAA reauthorization due by September.
Shares of U.S. carriers rebounded after the market opened as flights resumed. The S&P 500 airlines index was up 1%.
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 DOT, FAA’s parent agency, criticized Southwest’s failures and pressured the airline to compensate passengers. Buttigieg on Wednesday rejected the suggestion the FAA should reimburse travelers for delays caused by the outage.
The FAA suffered another significant computer issue on Jan. 2 that led to significant delays in Florida flights.
A total of 21,464 U.S. flights were scheduled to depart Wednesday with a capacity of nearly 2.9 million passengers, data from Cirium showed.
Package delivery companies FedEx, United Parcel Service and DHL, which rely heavily on planes, said they faced minimal disruptions on Wednesday.
Separately on Wednesday afternoon, air traffic control manager NAV Canada reported an outage of about 90 minutes in a similar messaging system used in Canada, but said the issue had not caused any flight delays. The agency said it did not believe its outage was related to the FAA one, but was investigating.
Ria Malhotra, a 29-year-old resident physician from Weehawken, New Jersey, had been scheduled to fly from Newark to Las Vegas for a medical conference, but her flight was first delayed and then rescheduled. After this, she wonders how much she will fly.
‘I just don’t want to deal with this process anymore because I feel like flight delays are more the norm than they are the exception to the rule,’ she said.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and David Shepardson in Washington, Abhijith Ganapavaram in Bengaluru, Jamie Freed in Sydney and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Additional reporting by Nathan Gomes and Priyamvada C in Bengaluru, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Doyinsola Oladipo in Newark, New Jersey, Sinead Carew in New York, Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Steve Holland in WashingtonWriting by Shailesh Kuber, Alexander Smith and Ben KlaymanEditing by Edmund Blair and Nick Zieminski)