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

TORONTO — 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.

Air Canada added it was putting in place a goodwill policy for affected customers to change their travel plans, though it did not offer further details about the policy.

The FAA issued a grounding order for all departing aircraft issued 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 affects 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.

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said he reached out to his U.S. counterpart, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, about the troubles.

"This was obviously a surprise. It was an unplanned interruption," Alghabra said at a news conference in Port Colborne, Ont.

"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

The minister referred to was Sunwing, which 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.

— With files from The Associated Press and Brett Bundale in Halifax

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

The Canadian Press