Computer Glitch and Stormy Weather Upend US Airline Operations

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The bumpy ride for the US aviation business into 2023 exposes the vulnerability of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to computer glitches as well as the impact of large-scale weather and climate disasters on airline operations. The FAA traced the problem to a faulty database file in its alert system that warns pilots of issues that could affect flight safety. The FAA ordered airlines to “pause all domestic departures until 9 a.m. Eastern Time to allow the agency to validate the integrity of flight and safety information.”

About half of the 21,000 flights scheduled for that day were affected, with 9,000 flights delayed and another 1,000 canceled. Airline operations were still in disarray on Thursday as airlines struggled to restore their operations and get aircraft and crew back into place. The hub and spoke system that United, Delta and American Airlines use to manage their networks created a massive backlog of stranded passengers who missed connecting flights.

Stormy Weather

The Notice to Air Missions system that went down for two hours is used to warn pilots of inclement weather and other events that could impact the routing of flights. The computer glitch coincided with relentless downpours on the West Coast that snarled air traffic and caused flooding across California. The phenomenon known as an atmospheric river — a band of concentrated moisture at high altitudes — is expected to occur with greater frequency and intensity over the Western US.

In December a bomb cyclone upended flight schedules and caused widescale cancellations over the busy holiday travel period. Southwest Airlines canceled more than 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 after a winter storm hit its major hubs of Chicago and Denver especially hard. Its aggressive scheduling with short turnaround times are blamed for the debacle, which could cost Southwest $800 million in the fourth quarter.

Weather disruptions due to climate change that snarl air traffic are already a grim reality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week that 2022 was one of worst for large-scale weather and climate disasters around the world in the 143-year record. Airlines have advanced avionics systems for navigating through hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones. But they rely on national and regional air traffic control systems to issue warnings about weather conditions that could compromise flight safety.

Despite all the turmoil, US airlines are in good financial shape heading into 2023. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) singled out North America as the only region where airlines reported a net profit for 2022. IATA expects the region's $9.9 billion profit last year will grow to $11.4 billion in 2023. North American air traffic was 8.6% below pre-Covid-19 rates last year, with IATA projecting that deficit will shrink to just 2.8% this year. US jet demand averaged 1.5 million barrels per day in 2022 or some 13% below pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to Energy Information Administration data.

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