Thousands of Airline Passengers Affected by FAA System Outage


Frequent fliers know that feeling well, particularly as air travel has roared back from pandemic lows: Their flight has been delayed, and then they receive little information about when — or if — it will take off, stoking feelings of anger and hopelessness.

But the Federal Aviation Administration system failure that caused more than 9,000 delays on Wednesday led to a slightly different dynamic for the frustrated passengers: This time, they didn’t have the airline to blame.

“Because it was a systemwide, nationwide thing, there was nowhere to direct your outrage, so everybody was being really helpful,” said Jess McIntosh, a political consultant whose American Airlines flight was delayed in Albany, N.Y. “And nobody was yelling at the T.S.A. agents.”

The outage that halted takeoffs for about 90 minutes on Wednesday morning was caused by the failure of a system that the F.A.A. uses to send timely safety alerts to pilots. Flights began to resume at around 9 a.m., the F.A.A. said, but the effects continued to snarl air traffic throughout the day.

Some of the passengers may have been accommodating, but their plans were no less ruined. Ms. McIntosh, who left for the airport at 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Raleigh, N.C., for a business meeting, eventually went back home when she realized she was going to miss most of it. Ms. Inclán had to rearrange several meetings, and Ms. Hole said she and her fiancé would probably miss their connecting flight in Phoenix, disrupting their planned hiking trip in Utah for Mr. Tomlinson’s birthday.

Several major airlines, including Delta, American and United, announced that they would waive any fees typically associated with changing flights because of Wednesday’s delays and cancellations.

The fact that the disruption came from the F.A.A. and not an airline dealing with overbooked flights may explain why many passengers were not as outraged as they might have been, said Mike Arnot, an industry analyst.

“Safety first, and that’s the right call,” he said. “By and large, this will be hopefully forgotten by most of the traveling public soon.”

Not everyone was so understanding.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and the ranking member in the Senate aviation committee, called for accountability from the F.A.A. on what went wrong.

“The flying public deserves safety in the sky,” he said in a statement. “The F.A.A.’s inability to keep an important safety system up and running is completely unacceptable.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 workers, said the disruption was a “frustrating” reminder of the need to update the computer systems that airline crews rely on to operate.

“We’ll find out more about the root cause of the issue in the coming days,” Ms. Nelson said, “but what’s clear is the need for robust and stable funding this year to bring our aviation system into the 21st century.”

Paola Canales, who was flying Spirit Airlines to Honduras with a layover in Florida, said the malfunction made her worry about the integrity of the system.

“Think about it,” she said. “Hacks happen all the time now.”

Sayron Stokes, a passenger headed from La Guardia to Oakland, Calif., on Southwest, said she was “very mad” about the meltdown as she looked for a quiet corner of the airport for a nap on Wednesday. “We need to do something better,” she said.

At Newark Liberty International Airport, Jaime Vallejo, 52, who owns a cleaning company, was worried about catching his connecting flight from Miami to Ecuador. He was traveling with his wife and three children and had just learned that his 12 p.m. flight had been delayed by two hours.

Mr. Vallejo said he was also frustrated that the F.A.A. did not send him any direct notification, which would have saved him the stress of rushing to the airport.

“I didn’t receive so much as an email,” he said.



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