Monday, January 23, 2017

United Airlines Says It Has Resolved Problem That Grounded Domestic U.S. Flights: Delays may persist, airline warns, after earlier computer problem grounded flights

The Wall Street Journal
Updated Jan. 22, 2017 9:51 p.m. ET

NEW YORK— United Continental Holdings Inc. had a computer issue Sunday evening that caused it to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to put into effect a “ground stop” for its arriving and departing flights.

The airline said at around 9 p.m. ET Sunday that the issue had been resolved and flights were set to resume but warned that “customers may experience continued delays as we work through this.”

The problem at the Chicago-based airline, the third largest in the U.S. by traffic, started about three hours earlier. The FAA said on its website that by the carrier’s request, a “ground stop” had been put into place for arriving and departing flights. But the agency said the stop was only in effect until around 9 p.m. ET.

United said the issue affected a technology that sends text messages to pilots in the cockpit. Thus, they weren’t able to get information they needed to push back from the gate, including weight and balance calculations.

The company said 200 flights were affected, and the number was expected to increase.

Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. last year experienced separate major information technology problems that caused chaos in their flight operations for a number of days. United has been prone to a series of lesser problems in recent years.

United serves 212 domestic cities and 127 international destinations and operates 4,500 flights daily, including those by its United Express regional subcontractors.

Scott Kirby, United’s president, said on a recent earnings call, in response to an analyst’s question, that the company’s big passenger reservations system was fully functional and wasn’t holding back United in its operations. He ruled out a switch onto a different technology system.

One travel blogger, Joe Brancatelli at, posted Sunday evening that United’s computer system that governs its “weight and balance” checks were offline, which caused the ground stop for all domestic flights.

Weight and balance is the calculation airlines must make about their passenger load, fuel load and arrangement of luggage and cargo to ensure that each plane is airworthy to take off.

He said United was reduced to doing those calculations by hand, a time-consuming operation, and thus was only allowing international flights and those to Hawaii to depart.

It couldn’t be determined Sunday if that was the gist of the problem. United did’t say. But if there are flight delays on the ground, particularly at the end of the day, pilots tend to run out of time in their allowed workday and can’t go on. This can lead to a cascade of canceled flights.

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