Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his agency isn’t ruling out the possibility of “nefarious activity” being behind a computer outage that grounded all U.S. flights on Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is overseen by Buttigieg’s agency, halted all domestic flights on Wednesday after the Notice to Air Missions system that relays real-time flight hazards to pilots suffered an outage. The cause of the hour-long outage has not been determined.
“We’re not prepared to rule that out,” Buttigieg told MSNBC when he was asked if foul play such as a cyberattack was involved. “There hasn’t been any indication of that.”
Data from flight-tracking website FlightAware.com show that more than 8,600 flights in, out, and within the United States were delayed on Wednesday. More than flights were 1,200 canceled.
Wednesday’s incident was the first national grounding of flights in about two decades, officials told Reuters. Some officials compared the grounding to what occurred after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Buttigieg, a former presidential candidate and Indiana mayor, stressed that there’s no evidence that indicates malign actors were involved in the outage, while a similar statement was issued by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Twitter.
“There is no direct indication of any kind of external or nefarious activity, but we are not yet prepared to rule that out,” Buttigieg said, and Jean-Pierre said there is “no evidence of a cyberattack.”
President Joe Biden was briefed on the outage and spoke with Buttigieg during the morning, the president told reporters. Like Buttigieg, Biden said it’s not clear what caused the outage.
“They don’t know what the cause is,” Biden told reporters. “I told them to report directly to me when they find out. Aircraft can still land safely, just not take off right now. They don’t know what the cause of it is, they expect in a couple of hours they’ll have a good sense of what caused it and will respond at that time.”
The ground stop was the “right call” to make sure messages were moving correctly and there is no direct evidence of a cyberattack, Buttigieg said. “[The] FAA has determined that the safety system affected by the overnight outage is fully restored, and the nationwide ground stop will be lifted effective immediately,” he said in a separate statement on Wednesday. “I have directed an after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps.”
An FAA advisory said the system that provides so-called “Notices to Air Missions” with safety messages for pilots and others failed around 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, which meant no new messages could be processed. The outage occurred at a typically slow time after the holiday travel season, but demand remains strong as travel continues to recover to near pre-pandemic levels.
Over the holiday season, thousands of mostly Southwest Airlines flights were canceled or delayed amid what the firm blamed on a staffing problem and poor weather conditions due to a historic winter storm that hammered the United States. Buttigieg at the time said an investigation would be underway.
Airline and industry groups, meanwhile, sharply criticized the Biden administration and FAA for the system failure.
“Today’s FAA catastrophic system failure is a clear sign that America’s transportation network desperately needs significant upgrades,” Geoff Freeman, head of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement. “Americans deserve an end-to-end travel experience that is seamless and secure.”
“And our nation’s economy depends on a best-in-class air travel system,” Freeman continued. “We call on federal policymakers to modernize our vital air travel infrastructure to ensure our systems are able to meet demand safely and efficiently.”
The FAA confirmed earlier this month that it had suffered a separate significant computer error on Jan. 2 that led to delays in Florida. The agency later said in a statement that a “computer issue” was behind the delays and that it was resolved.
The outage appeared to have limited impact on transatlantic routes, with European carriers including Lufthansa, Air France, Iberia, and British Airways saying flights are continuing in and out of the United States. Virgin Atlantic cautioned some flights might be delayed.
Reuters contributed to this report.