Take Flight: Glitch That Caused Air Delays Nationwide Now Fixed, Says FAA
November 19, 2009 at 1:52 PM EST - Updated June 19 at 1:26 PM
UPDATE: ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Carmen McDonald thought her Spirit Airlines flight would leave right on time -- around 7 a.m. Thursday from the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
But the 39-year-old model who had been heading to Boston sat for a maddening hour and 15 minutes amid the noise of loud kids before the plane was ready to leave a logjammed runway and take off.
"I'm frustrated," she said, thankfully distracted by using Twitter and calling on her cellphone as her plane sat planted on the runway. "I have somewhere to be."
McDonald is one of many air passengers across the United States inconvenienced by flight delays caused when a computerized system in Atlanta and Salt Lake City, Utah that airlines use to file flight plans failed for several hours.
Paul Takemoto, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the system went out at 5:06 a.m. ET and came back on about five hours later. He said officials working to pinpoint the cause know that there was a problem with the main telecommunications systems.
"It was an efficiency problem rather than a safety problem, but it was a serious efficiency problem," Takemoto said.
Because of the outage, air traffic controllers had to enter flight plans manually, a problem that causes delays, according to the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The air traffic controllers' group said the problem will cause flight delays throughout the day because of a "domino effect."
"Air traffic controllers are without electronic decision-making tools and cannot keep up with the sheer numbers of flights -- resulting in delays," the controllers' group said in a statement during the outage. "Air traffic controllers on the ground at major airports are getting no automated flight plan information and have to enter that information manually, a cumbersome and time-consuming process."
AirTran Airways spokesman Christopher White said as of 8 a.m., the airline canceled 22 flights around the country and had delayed dozens more because of a flight plan filing system problem.
He said most of the canceled flights were in Atlanta, AirTran's hub of operations, and others are spread throughout the country. White said the problem will have "a pretty major impact on operations" and the cancellations will have a ripple effect.
"We will be a mess all day," he said.
AirTran -- which operates a total of about 700 flights a day -- asked customers to check airtran.com before they show up at the airport.
Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said the airline was not providing numbers on how many flights were affected. But she said that Delta will give travelers some flexibility in rescheduling.
Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines, said that 300 to 500 American flights had been delayed, virtually every one scheduled to take off. The longest delays have been just over an hour, but no flights have been canceled and some might be consolidated, he said.
"Things are moving; they are just moving more slowly," Smith said, adding American has been particularly affected at LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York, as well as Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas and Chicago, Illinois in what has been a nationwide problem.
Smith said the problem reflects that the U.S. air traffic control system is run with what he calls "1960's technology" and needs to be modernized.
US Airways' spokesman Morgan Durrant said the airline had a few delays across the system, including some as long as 30 minutes but it doesn't anticipate more delays.
Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were "monitoring the situation regarding the FAA's automated flight plan system."
"The Airport is working to minimize the impact on customers by bringing in additional staff and ensuring that all facilities are operational and fully maintained. All passengers are encouraged to contact the airlines regarding the statuses of their flights before they head to the Airport," the airport said in a statement.
The system -- the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, or Nadin -- appears to be the same one that failed in August 2008. The FAA said the information in the network is data required to expeditiously launch planes. Airplane safety was not affected, the FAA noted, saying that for planes currently in the air, there was radar coverage and communication.
Weather also might have played a role in Northeast flight delays. The air traffic controllers say "weather equipment was affected" and NOTAM alerts (Notice to Airmen) and information like winds speeds were not "processing."
The controllers say "airport efficiency is being cut at least half at places like New York-JFK" and in the "New York airspace, controllers are forced to put 20 miles of space between aircraft."
When McDonald's plane was cleared for takeoff in Fort Lauderdale, she said she had to turn off her cellphone and get ready to go.
"Now I'm happy," she said, "because nobody likes to be delayed."
--CNN's Mike Ahlers, Jeanne Meserve, and Joe Sterling contributed to this report