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According to a tweet from the FAA, "Southwest Airlines requested the FAA pause the airline’s departures."

Southwest Airlines tweeted

We have had to implement a ground stop as a result of intermittent issues that were experienced, and we should hopefully be resuming our operation as soon as possible. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but we'll be here for you if you need any assistance. -Katy

Why did Southwest Airlines have to ask the FAA to ground their flights? Couldn't they have done it themselves?

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  • $\begingroup$ Pure Speculation: Do they gain some kind of insurance benefit if they "were canceled" instead of cancelling themselves? $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 28, 2023 at 7:11

3 Answers 3

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If SWA wanted an immediate ground stop on additional departures, they would contact the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) in Herndon, VA and request it. The ATCSCC would conference all enroute centers and inform them to ground stop all SWA departures due to company automation problems. The enroute centers will send out a message to all underlying facilities as well as the internal sectors to stop SWA departures with an expected update time. This whole process takes about 3 minutes and captures all aircraft irrespective of whether the aircraft are talking to dispatch.

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    $\begingroup$ So SWA doesn't have communication with all of their pilots, but ATCSCC does? $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Apr 20, 2023 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know whether SWA can communicate with all of their aircraft all of the time. The ATCSCC can communicate with ATC facilities, not SWA pilots. It's the ATC facilities that will stop clearing aircraft for departure or rescind previously issued clearances. $\endgroup$
    – RetiredATC
    Apr 20, 2023 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, but just adding some info - SWA (as is the case with all Part 121 Air Carriers) has to always be able to communicate (per FAR's, e.g. FAR 121.99) with every one of their aircraft all the time while operating. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Apr 20, 2023 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ @757toga I read that SWA had a problem with their computer network (a network firewall broke down). Could well be that they could not communicate to their aircraft at the time, or they could not find out which aircraft to contact because they lost access to ops data. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Apr 20, 2023 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 maybe because SWA won't have communication with that plane, so allowing it to take off would be a violation of FAR 121.99 as described by 757toga? $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Apr 21, 2023 at 17:06
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I wouldn't read too much into a social media tweet; the space simply doesn't allow a person to explain in a way that captures the complexity or nuances of any relationship between a regulatory agency and a part 121 carrier.

In short, a carrier doesn't need FAA permission to cancel a flight. There are slots reserved, so likely the tweet is a very brief paraphrasing of whatever notification process is used to inform the FAA of cancelled flights and "release" those booked slots to other carriers.

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  • $\begingroup$ So the FAA cancellations would be to allow other airlines to take over the slots, not to allow Southwest to cancel the flights? $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Apr 19, 2023 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone, I have never worked in airline dispatch or the FAA so I cannot answer with authority. This is an educated guess based on some amount of random experience in aviation. I would suggest not accepting my answer in case someone comes along with a better explanation of the process. The main point is don't read too much into a single sentence "Tweet" as being authoritative and complete explanation. It could be a social media intern told to put out something who didn't fully understand things. People at the FAA are human too... Maybe there is a more official press release? $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2023 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @757, the verbiage used was in fact "ground stop." And remember of course that neither the FAA not Southwest uses tweets for operational purposes; they are only for after-the-fact public-information dissemination. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Apr 20, 2023 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ @randomhead Well, we've seen heads of state use tweets to run whole countries. The days of ATC happening over Twitter might not be too far ahead. $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Apr 20, 2023 at 7:31
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Lay-person typing: maybe it's to do with some aspects of regulation, insurance or other legal matters.

If your flight is cancelled, it most probably makes a difference e.g. with respect to compensation, whether it has been cancelled by the airline (they are simply not serving any routes) or whether is has been cancelled by the FAA (the airline has been temporarily banned from serving routes).

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    $\begingroup$ An operator cannot avoid compensatory responsibilities by asking FAA for grounding. They asked for it themselves, hence it would not fall under any force majeure. Asking for assistance from the FAA may have been the most convinient way of achieving fleetwide ground stop. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Apr 20, 2023 at 14:29

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