Domestic departures gradually resume after FAA restores its safety system

Published January 11, 2023 at 8:00 AM EST
Travelers wait in the terminal as an Alaska Airlines plane sits at a gate at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday.
Stefani Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
Travelers wait in the terminal as an Alaska Airlines plane sits at a gate at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday.

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Air traffic has resumed, but delays are still piling up, after the FAA halted all departures on Wednesday morning. A system for alerting pilots and airports of real-time hazards, called NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions), failed overnight.

Here's what we know:

Here are the flight stats as of noon E.T. (and where to look for more)

Posted January 11, 2023 at 12:03 PM EST
An information board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport shows delays and cancellations on Wednesday.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
An information board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport shows delays and cancellations on Wednesday.

U.S. flight delays and cancellations are still increasing from an hour ago, although they appear to be growing at a slightly slower rate.

As of noon E.T., FlightAware says 6,988 flights into, within or out of the country have been delayed, and just over 1,100 have been canceled altogether.

You can see the tracker for yourself here.

Context

FAA is operating without a permanent leader

Posted January 11, 2023 at 11:58 AM EST

The national aviation agency has been acting without a permanent head since March, when a Trump appointee, Stephen Dickson, stepped down halfway through his five-year term.

President Biden's nominee to lead the FAA, Phillip A. Washington, has yet to receive a Senate confirmation hearing. The CEO of Denver International Airport, Washington has a limited resume in aviation but was noticed for helping to steer the Denver Airport's pandemic recovery, according to the Associated Press.

Biden renominated Washington for the role as the new Congress was established last week.

In the interim, the FAA is being led by the agency's top safety official, Billy Nolen.

The first ground stop on all air traffic happened on Sept. 11, 2001

Posted January 11, 2023 at 11:48 AM EST
Los Angeles International Airport closed on Sept. 11, 2001.
David McNew
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Getty Images
Los Angeles International Airport closed on Sept. 11, 2001.

While air travel chaos is all too common these days, today's nationwide ground halt was a relatively rare event.

It may have even been the first time the FAA grounded all U.S. flights since 9/11, according to unconfirmed comments including from Republican Rep. Byron Donalds.

There's been at least one other notable nationwide halt, though that one wasn't for safety reasons: A strike by thousands of air traffic controllers in August 1981 temporarily grounded about 35% of the nation's 14,200 daily commercial flights, per the FAA.

Sept. 11, 2001, was the first time in U.S. aviation history that the FAA put a ground stop on all traffic, which it says it did to prevent any further hijackings. First, just after 9 a.m. ET, it issued a ground stop to all traffic that would encounter New York airspace but hadn't yet departed. Within an hour it had closed all U.S. airspace.

That halt lasted for more than a few hours, or even a full day — it wasn't until 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13 that national airspace reopened to U.S. air carriers, provided airports had implemented new security measures.

Sen. Ted Cruz says the outage is a sign of dysfunction in the Department of Transportation

Posted January 11, 2023 at 11:30 AM EST

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., issued a statement on the outage, attacking the FAA's outage as "completely unacceptable" and "the latest example of dysfunction within the Department of Transportation."

He also alluded to possible congressional action, saying "the administration needs to explain to Congress what happened" and that congress should "enact reforms in this year's FAA reauthorization."

A Democrat, Rep. Lou Correa of California, also weighed in, calling for the outage to be fully investigated.

"As we wait to know more, seeing that our nation’s flight infrastructure can come to a grinding halt so easily is, without doubt, a threat to our national security," he wrote on Twitter.

More than 1,000 U.S. flights have been canceled

Posted January 11, 2023 at 11:07 AM EST
Flight delays are shown on a board at Reagan Washington National Airport on Thursday.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
Flight delays are shown on a board at Reagan Washington National Airport on Wednesday.

More than a thousand U.S. flights have been canceled today as of 11 a.m. ET, two hours after the ground halt was lifted.

The number of delays and cancellations has continued to climb over the last hour, according to FlightAware.

More than 6,400 flights into, within or out of the U.S. have been delayed, and just over 1,020 have been canceled.

Major U.S. airlines including Southwest, American, Delta, and JetBluehave issued similar statements, many saying they are working to reduce disruptions and encouraging passengers to check their mobile apps for the latest information.

JetBlue, for example, says customers "may still see some delays" and should "plan on busier than normal airports."

Context

The air industry is still recovering from another recent round of delays and cancellations

Posted January 11, 2023 at 10:46 AM EST

It was just a few weeks ago that airlines were responding to another barrage of flight delays and cancellations caused, at first, by a string of brutal winter stormsduring the busiest holiday travel season.

Those disruptions were extended for some travelers thanks to a logistical nightmare at Southwest Airlines.

Citing staffing shortages and an outdated computer system, the company canceled 16,700 flights over a 10-day period, leaving passengers, airline staff and mounds of baggage in limbo.

NPR's Guilia Heyward reports that Southwest, America's largest domestic airline, could report losses as high as $825 million thanks to the cancellations. The company originally gave its customers frequent-flyer points rather than immediate refunds, but its CEO says Southwest is processing reimbursement requests "with great urgency."

Wednesday's ground stop came amidst a slower mid-week travel period. Data from the Transportation Security Administration shows 1.6 million people went through airport security checkpoints yesterday, down from 2.4 million three weeks ago today.

➡️ Read more about Southwest's ongoing recovery efforts here.

Here's where flight delays stand as of 10 a.m. ET

Posted January 11, 2023 at 10:20 AM EST
Travelers look at a flight information board listing canceled and delayed flights Thursday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Saul Loeb
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AFP via Getty Images
Travelers look at a flight information board listing canceled and delayed flights Wednesday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

A total of 4,948 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were still delayed as of 10 a.m. ET on Monday, an hour after the FAA lifted its domestic departure pause. Another 894 U.S. flights had been canceled altogether.

Maryland's Baltimore/Washington International Airport was seeing the greatest impact, with 41% of its departing flights and 34% of its arriving flights delayed.

Here are some of the others most impacted, all seeing roughly a quarter of arriving and departing flights delayed:

  • Chicago's Midway (MDW)
  • New York's La Guardia (LGA)
  • Tennessee's Nashville (BNA)
  • Texas's Dallas Love Field (DAL)
  • Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL)
  • Houston's William P Hobby (HOU)
  • St. Louis's Lambert (STL)
  • Orlando's international (MCO)
  • Tampa's international (TPA)
  • Kansas City's international (MCI)

An airline investigator says today shows the need to keep systems up to date

Posted January 11, 2023 at 10:15 AM EST
An American Airlines flight takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Thursday.
Saul Loeb
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AFP via Getty Images
An American Airlines flight takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Wednesday.

David Soucie, a safety and accident investigator and former FAA official, spoke with Morning Edition about today's system outage and what questions officials should be looking to answer now.

Describing the importance of the NOTAM system, he says it's "incredibly essential" for airlines; they can get information about hazards by other means, but this is what centralizes it.

So what caused the problem, if not a cyberattack? Soucie says the biggest issue is that of system capacity, noting that Southwest Airlines' December meltdown was also due in part to outdated systems.

"The system's immeasurably complex," he adds. "And if they're not updating their systems as things move forward, then they're going to find themselves in a difficult situation."

Listen to the full interview here.

United Airlines is offering travel waivers

Posted January 11, 2023 at 10:06 AM EST

Before the FAA imposed its temporary ground stop, United Airlines voluntarily delayed all domestic departing flights.

Now the airline says it's offering travel waivers to anyone impacted by the disruption.

The airline says that the change fee and any difference in fare will be waived for customers changing a flight scheduled for today to another United flight departing on or before Jan. 16 as long as travel is rescheduled in the same fare class and between the same cities.

Other airlines were still advising customers to check their flight status for the most up-to-date information as air traffic gradually began resuming.

"We are working to safely resume normal operations, but customers may still see some delays," reads a tweet from Jet Blue. "Plan on busier than normal airports."

Just In

La Guardia and Boston's Logan airports are still pausing arrivals to manage traffic

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:39 AM EST
A United Airlines plane departs from Newark International Airport after flights resumed on Thursday.
Kena Betancur
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AFP via Getty Images
A United Airlines plane departs from Newark International Airport after flights resumed on Wednesday.

According to the FAA's Air Traffic Control Command Center, departure traffic destined for two airports will not be allowed to depart until at or after 10:00 a.m. ET to help manage traffic.

Logan International Airport in Boston (BOS) and La Guardia Airport in New York (LGA) are asking other airports to delay their departing flights while the traffic subsides.

The FAA also says that Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina (CLT) is asking for some help in managing traffic, causing arriving flights to be delayed by an average of 43 minutes. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) was also flagged by the FAA as operating under a traffic management plan, but it's unclear how arriving flights would be impacted.

The view from Colorado, home to one of the nation's busiest airports

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:18 AM EST
The Southwest Airlines passenger check in area at Denver International Airport.
Hart Van Denburg
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CPR News
The Southwest Airlines passenger check in area at Denver International Airport on a morning with sub-zero temperatures, snow, canceled flights and stranded passengers, Dec. 22, 2022.

Matt Bloom from CPR News reports:

More than 300 flights at Denver International Airport saw delays, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

At least 45 were canceled — a majority through Southwest Airlines.

Airports in Colorado Springs and other parts of the state also saw delays due to this morning's technical failure.

Read the full story at CPR.org.

Where flight delays and cancellations stand as of 9 a.m. ET

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:15 AM EST

By the time the FAA lifted its pause on air traffic at 9 a.m. ET, more than 4,300 flights within, into or out of the U.S. had been delayed and more than 750 others had been canceled, according to FlightAware.

Context

What, exactly, is the NOTAM system that was down?

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:13 AM EST
Air Traffic Control tower pictured in Las Vegas
Ethan Miller
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Getty Images North America
Air traffic control towers, like this one at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, Nevada, use NOTAMs to keep air travel safe.

NOTAM stands for "Notice to Air Missions," and the FAA describes it as "a notice containing information essential to personnel concerned with flight operations but not known far enough in advance to be publicized by other means."

NOTAMs are what the FAA uses to communicate real-time information to pilots and air traffic controllers about everything from weather to airport construction. Pilots might receive NOTAMs about closed runways, large flocks of birds, a plume of volcanic ash, ice on a runway, or lights on tall buildings and towers.

In other words, it's a pretty important system.

The modern NOTAM system was born in 1947, modeled after a marine-based system that advised ship captains of hazards on the high seas.

Government agencies and airport operators are responsible for sending NOTAM updates. The U.S. Military and some international airports use NOTAMs as well.

Critically, NOTAMs are organized regionally and temporally, meaning that pilots see updates for whatever flight path they're on. A keyword system, "RWY" for runway and "NAV" for navigation, for example, keeps communication easy to digest.

It's still unclear what caused the NOTAM system to fail at 3:28 am ET. The FAA has been referring to the incident as an "equipment outage."

"Due to system processing delays, recently entered NOTAMs may not be displayed," a database for the missives read before flights resumed.

With the safety system restored, officials refocus on what went wrong

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:05 AM EST

The safety system affected by the overnight outage has been fully restored and the ground stop is lifting immediately, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted just before 9 a.m. ET.

He added: "I have directed an after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps."

Just In

FAA says the pause on air traffic has been lifted

Posted January 11, 2023 at 9:02 AM EST

The FAA says flights can get underway again following a domestic departure pause.

"Normal air traffic operations are resuming gradually across the United States following an overnight outage to the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that provides safety information to flight crews," The FAA said in a statement shared with NPR.

"The ground stop has been lifted. The agency continues to look into the cause of the initial problem."

The view from NYC, where 3 major airports are impacted

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:52 AM EST

The nationwide outage is halting domestic departures from major New York City-area airports. Newark Airport, JFK and LaGuardia have all been affected.

Passenger Steve Chiavarone said he was getting ready to board his 6:30 a.m. flight from Newark to Atlanta when someone from United Airlines explained the situation, telling passengers to "settle in and get comfortable."

“Restaurants are open, bathrooms are available, so it’s not as bad as it could be,” he said, adding the airline was offering free snacks and water.

Read the full story from Gothamist.

Transportation officials expect to know more in a couple hours, Biden says

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:26 AM EST
President Biden speaks on the FAA outage as he leaves the White House on Wednesday.
Kevin Dietsch
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Getty Images
President Biden speaks on the FAA outage as he leaves the White House on Wednesday.

Biden told reporters at the White House about his call with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“They don’t know what the cause is,” Biden said. “I told him to report directly to me when they find out.”

He said aircraft were still able to land safely but cannot take off right now because of the system outage. He said the department expected to know more in a couple of hours.

Just In

The FAA says departures are resuming in Newark and Atlanta

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:22 AM EST

The FAA says it's still making progress in restoring the NOTAM system, but that it will resume departures at two airports earlier than planned.

"Departures are resuming at Newark Liberty and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airports due to air traffic congestion in those areas," the FAA wrote in an email update to NPR. "We expect departures to resume at other airports at 9 a.m. ET."

What to do if you're stranded (at least under typical circumstances)

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:18 AM EST

It's not clear how these technical difficulties or temporary ground stops will affect flights scheduled to depart from U.S. airports later in the day.

But as the number of cancellations and delays continues to grow, stressed-out travelers may be wondering what options are available to them.

NPR's Vanessa Romo and Giulia Heyward put together this handy guide of tips for stranded travelers during the latest bout of airline chaos in late December.

An important caveat: Today's situation is not your average overbooked flight or weather delay, and it's not yet clear what sorts of refunds or recourse may be on the table, so please take this general advice with a grain of salt.

Thousands of U.S. flights have been delayed so far

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:11 AM EST
A passenger aircraft sits at a gate at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Stefani Reynolds
/
AFP via Getty Images
A passenger aircraft sits at a gate at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

The FAA has temporarily grounded domestic flights as it works to resolve technical difficulties.

More than 3,578 flights within, into or out of the U.S. have been delayed as of just after 8 a.m. ET, according to tracking platform FlightAware. Another 438 have been canceled so far.

A total of 21,464 flights are scheduled to depart U.S. airports on Wednesday with a carrying capacity of nearly 2.9 million passengers, Reuters reports, citing data from aviation analytics company Ciricum.

It adds that American Airlines has the most departures from U.S. airports with 4,819 flights scheduled, followed by Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines.

Just In

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says he's talking with the FAA

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:10 AM EST

Buttigieg tweeted this morning that he's been in touch with the aviation body this morning and that the outage is "affecting a key system for providing safety information to pilots."

The secretary has been in the spotlight the last few weeks for another air industry disruption. After Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights during peak holiday travel system, Buttigieg has been pledging to hold the company responsible for refunds and reimbursements, though his department may lack the enforcement muscle to do so.

'No evidence of a cyberattack at this point,' White House says

Posted January 11, 2023 at 8:02 AM EST

President Biden has been briefed on the system outage and ordered the Department of Transportation to conduct a "full investigation into its causes," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted Wednesday morning.

There is "no evidence of a cyberattack at this point, she said, adding that the FAA will provide regular updates.

Just In

The FAA has paused all domestic flights until 9 a.m. ET. Here's what we know.

Posted January 11, 2023 at 7:59 AM EST

The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered airlines to ground all departing flights in the U.S. until at least 9 a.m. ET, as the agency works to restore a critical notification system.

The outage is affecting the Notice to Air Missions system (NOTAM), which notifies pilots and their airlines of potential hazards and changes to airport facilities and procedures, such as runway closures, bird hazard warnings and construction obstacles.

As of 7:30 a.m. ET, more than 1,200 flights scheduled for today had been delayed and more than 100 had been canceled. Airlines and airports are warning travelers of significant delays this morning and urge them to check with their airline before heading to the airport.

"THE FAA is experiencing an outage that is impacting the update of NOTAMS. All flights are unable to be released at this time," the FAA said in an advisory announcing the issue.

The FAA has opened a hotline to address equipment issues as some NOTAM functions began to come back online.