United Airlines Network Outage Snarls Air Traffic

By Dan Collins on 28 August 2012
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Hand-written United Airlines boarding pass

United Airlines suffered a computer network outage that snarled air traffic across the country and left tens of thousands of passengers stranded on airplanes that were not taking off and also caused very long lines in airport terminals.

A malfunctioning reservation system prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a ground stop on all United Airlines flights this afternoon. Flights were prevented from taking off or landing from approximately 3:20 p.m. EDT until 5:20 p.m. EDT according to flight tracking website FlightAware. The outage and ground halts started at the United hubs at Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO) but quickly spread to other locations including Houston.

United confirmed the problem on Facebook and Twitter: “We have a network outage and are working to get systems back online. We’ll update soon.”

United passengers voiced their displeasure via Facebook and Twitter by the hundreds.

“UAL’s computer went down,” the FAA advised in a statement. “It’s back up … but the delays we’re seeing are absolutely a United problem, not an ATC (air traffic control) issue.”

According to an industry source, the ground stop was a routine response to the failure of a passenger service system or PSS, which comprises a reservations system, an inventory system, and a departure control system.  Airlines use these systems to communicate accurate passenger manifest data to the Transportation Security Administration prior to departure.

The system failure is the first since United and Continental merged their reservations systems in March 2012, although the cutover to the new system, which was carried over from Continental Airlines, was far from smooth.

Traffic was back to normal by 6 p.m. EDT on Tuesday outside of weather-related delays and closures in response to Hurricane Isaac.

United apologized to its customers in a statement, saying it “is in the process of resuming normal operations following a temporary network outage that affected its airports and website Tuesday afternoon.” It is allowing customers on affected flights to cancel or rebook itineraries without incurring a penalty.

(Photo: Moira Forbes via Twitter)

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