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U.S. travel problems affecting transborder flights: Air Canada, WestJet

Canadian travellers headed to or from the U.S. urged to check their flights
People travel to the United States of America at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Air Canada warned travellers to check their flights before heading to the airport as troubles caused by a key computer outage at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration caused delays. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Air Canada and WestJet encouraged travellers headed to or from the U.S. to check their flights before going to the airport after a key computer outage at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration caused delays.

WestJet said six flights were delayed Wednesday morning because of the computer outage and none were cancelled, while Air Canada said the outage would have an effect on its transborder operations, but that it was not possible to determine the extent of the delays.

The FAA issued a grounding order for all departing aircraft Wednesday morning due to a problem with what is known as the Notice to Air Missions System (NOTAMs). The order remained in place until just before 9 a.m. ET.

Before commencing a flight, pilots are required to consult NOTAMs, which list potential adverse impacts on flights, from runway construction to the potential for icing. The system used to be telephone-based, with pilots calling dedicated flight service stations for the information, but has moved online.

The NOTAM system broke down late Tuesday, leading to more than 1,000 flight cancellations and more than 6,000 delayed flights by 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

Separately, Canada’s NOTAM entry system also experienced an outage between 10:20 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. ET, said Nav Canada’s manager of government and media relations, Vanessa Adams.

“We are still investigating the root cause of the failure,” she wrote in an email.

“At this time, we do not believe the cause is related to the FAA outage experienced earlier today.”

Nadine Ramadan, a spokesperson for Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said in an afternoon email that their office had been in touch with Nav Canada.

Earlier in the day, at a news conference in Port Colborne, Ont., Alghabra said he had reached out to his U.S. counterpart, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, about the U.S. NOTAM troubles.

“This was obviously a surprise. It was an unplanned interruption,” Alghabra said.

“We still don’t know all the facts yet, but good news is that I am hearing that traffic has restarted again, so we will stay in coordination with our U.S. partners to understand what had happened and what can we do to avoid similar interruptions.”

The delays came after storms caused havoc for travellers during the busy holiday travel season.

“Canadians are patient when it comes to that as long as they are informed of what is happening, when they can get to their destination,” Alghabra said of the storms.

“What compounded this situation was some unfortunate decisions made by one airline operator,” in an apparent reference to Sunwing

Sunwing announced on Dec. 29 that it was cancelling its operations through Feb. 3 at Saskatchewan’s two largest airports.

By then, hundreds of passengers were affected by Sunwing flight disruptions, which began to pile up on Dec. 22 due to weather. Some customers were stranded for days in tropical destinations amid a flurry of cancellations, winter storms and a breakdown with the airline’s digital communication service that left some flights with empty seats.

The company has since apologized for the disruptions, said it has completed all recovery flights related to holiday disruptions and has a plan to fix technical issues with flight alert notifications and communication flow to customers.

Executives from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing are scheduled to appear before the MPs at a transport committee hearing on Thursday, where passenger compensation for delayed and cancelled flights is under discussion.

—Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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