United Airlines Suffers Massive Computer Outage, Delaying Hundreds of Flights—Was It a Cybersecurity Issue?

United Airlines Suffers Massive Computer Outage, Delaying Hundreds of Flights—Was It a Cybersecurity Issue?

United Airlines experienced a widespread service disruption on a busy travel day due to a software update glitch, leading to temporary halts in departures.

According to the Associated Press, while some speculated about a potential cybersecurity issue, the airline clarified that it was solely a technology systems problem.

(Photo : Win McNamee/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – SEPTEMBER 01: A United airlines flight departs from Reagan National Airport on September 01, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia. Labor Day weekend is expected to see a record number of travelers in the United States following the busiest summer of air travel in history with over 14 million passengers, more than pre-pandemic travel rates.

What Caused the United Airlines’ Glitch?

According to United Airlines, the disruption resulted from a software update that triggered a slowdown in its technology systems. 

This glitch led to difficulties in normal communications between airline crews and dispatchers. However, the airline stressed that the issue did not stem from a cybersecurity breach.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), responsible for managing the nation’s airspace, confirmed that United Airlines had requested a nationwide halt in departures.

The FAA noted that the problem was isolated to United Airlines and its affiliated subsidiaries. The ground stop affected departures and did not impact flights already in progress. Fortunately, this halt lasted for just over an hour.

Despite the disruption, United Airlines managed to keep flight cancellations to a minimum, with only seven flights canceled by late afternoon Tuesday on the East Coast. 

This figure was significantly lower than the airline’s average daily cancellation rate, which typically hovers around 16 flights during the busy Labor Day weekend, as reported by tracking service FlightAware.

However, flight delays were more widespread, affecting over 350 United flights, which accounted for 13% of the airline’s schedule. This substantial delay rate surpassed its competitors, including American, Delta, and Southwest. The disruption came at a time when many holiday travelers were returning home.

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Similar Outages

It is worth noting that Southwest Airlines also experienced a similar outage in April, resulting in a temporary halt in departing flights and over 2,000 flight delays.

In the past, the FAA has taken action to halt all US departures briefly due to safety concerns. In January, a system responsible for alerting pilots to safety hazards malfunctioned.

The FAA attributed the incident to a contractor who accidentally deleted files while synchronizing the alert system and its backup, according to the AP.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously voiced concerns about airline-related issues, assured the public that the FAA was actively gathering information about the recent disruption’s cause and scope.

He emphasized that the Department of Transportation (DOT) would ensure that United Airlines fulfilled its obligations to affected passengers. 

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