Updated Jan 11, 2023 - Economy

FAA outage upends U.S. air travel, second fiasco in weeks

United Airlines aircraft are seen at Newark Liberty International Airport in July.

United Airlines planes are seen at Newark Airport in July. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

A Federal Aviation Administration computer system outage temporarily grounded all domestic flight departures Wednesday, impacting travel for some 10,000 flights.

The big picture: This marked the second major disruption to U.S. air travel in recent weeks, after a winter storm last month caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations over the holiday season.

Catch up quick: The FAA announced shortly before 9 am ET Wednesday that it would allow normal air traffic operations to resume, following an outage of its Notice to Air Missions System, which sends notifications to pilots about flight restrictions, hazards and broken equipment.

  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed on Twitter that the "safety system affected by the overnight outage is fully restored" and that efforts were underway to determine what caused the outage.

By the numbers: As of 6:30 pm ET, there were nearly 9,600 flight delays within, into, or out of the U.S. on Wednesday, according to data from FlightAware.

  • More than 1,300 flights within, into, or out of the U.S. were canceled Wednesday.

President Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he had spoken with Buttigieg and asked that he "report directly to me when they find out" the cause.

  • "Aircraft can still land safely, just not take off right now," Biden said. "They don't know what the cause of it is, they expect in a couple of hours they'll have a good sense of what caused it and will respond at that time."
  • White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted Wednesday that there was "no evidence of a cyberattack at this point."

What they're saying: Republicans criticized the DOT's handling of the situation and called on the Biden administration to enact reforms to the FAA.

  • "The FAA's inability to keep an important safety system up and running is completely unacceptable and just the latest example of dysfunction within the Department of Transportation," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
  • Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, echoed the demand for a briefing to Congress, adding that the system’s failure "highlights a huge vulnerability in our air transportation system."

Zoom out: The FAA has been without a permanent leader since March, with President Biden's nominee to the position — Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington — not yet receiving a confirmation hearing.

  • Washington, who had already faced questions regarding his lack of aviation experience, was presented with another hurdle in September when he was named in a criminal search in Los Angeles related to his time as CEO of the Los Angeles Metro transit agency.

Of note: The Notice to Air Missions System provides pilots with critical information regarding changes that may affect their flights.

  • These might include airspace closures, a taxiway closure at an airport, or even the presence of equipment near the runway, per Axios' Andrew Freedman. Even without a mandated ground stop, airlines would likely be hesitant to fly without the notices.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details throughout.

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