Another week, another meltdown, only this time you can’t blame the airlines
Passenger jets are seen on the tarmac in Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, on the morning of Wednesday, Jan.11, 2023.
By DANIEL VICTOR and MARIA CRAMER
Frequent flyers 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 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, New York. “And nobody was yelling at the TSA agents.”
The outage that halted takeoffs for about 90 minutes Wednesday morning was caused by the failure of a system that the FAA uses to send timely safety alerts to pilots. Flights began to resume around 9 a.m., the FAA said, but the effects continued to snarl air traffic throughout the day.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, which represents airline consumers, called the shutdown “shocking” and potentially avoidable.
“The fact that this could happen at all shows the real vulnerabilities to the computer system that the FAA operates,” he said. The FAA said it was still investigating the cause of the disruption to the NOTAM — short for Notice to Air Mission — alert system. There was no evidence of a cyberattack, said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary.
Hudson said that while the cause of the disruption is still unknown, it was clear that the FAA needs to update its computer system and conduct more “stress tests,” such as drills conducted at airports and by airlines to prepare for emergencies.
In terminals across the country, just weeks after mass cancellations by Southwest Airlines left thousands of travelers stranded, many passengers were sanguine about yet another chaotic day for air travel.
Bettina Inclán, who was traveling to Houston from Washington, said her United pilot kept everyone on her delayed flight informed and calm.
“The entire United team did really well in setting expectations, being honest on what they knew and didn’t know, and what it all meant,” she said.
As Sara Hole, of Stamford, Connecticut, and her fiance, Drew Tomlinson, waited by their gate at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on Wednesday morning, they got the impression that the American Airlines staff members were just as confused as the passengers.
Over the intercom, an airline representative told them there was an FAA “system outage,” but there were few other details.
“They have emphasized that they have all of the same information that we do,” Hole said.
Some of the passengers may have been accommodating, but their plans were no less ruined. McIntosh, who left for the airport at 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a business meeting, eventually went back home when she realized she was going to miss most of it.
Inclán had to rearrange several meetings, and Hole said she and her fiance would probably miss their connecting flight in Phoenix, disrupting their planned hiking trip in Utah for 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 FAA 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.”
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,” 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.”
Sayron Stokes, a passenger headed from LaGuardia Airport to Oakland, California, on Southwest, said she was “very mad” about the meltdown as she looked for a quiet corner of the airport for a nap Wednesday. “We need to do something better,” she said.
At the Newark 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 noon flight had been delayed by two hours.
Vallejo said he was also frustrated that the FAA 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.
Unlike Southwest’s holiday season meltdown, when passengers aimed their anger squarely at the airline and some of its workers, the disappointment on Wednesday couldn’t be pinned on a specific company or even severe weather. No matter the airline or the region of the country, everyone was in the dark.
It led to confusing scenes in the early morning as the picture came into focus. Venus Marcil said she and her uncle were on their plane at Orlando International Airport, seatbelts fastened and their plane cleared for takeoff for their 7:25 a.m. Delta flight to New York, when the pilot said they would not be departing.
The passengers deplaned, and she was told she would receive an update in about two hours. But that wasn’t Delta’s fault, she said.
“I think they’ve been transparent and timely with the communication,” Marcil said of the airline.