'We do not know when this is going to be fixed,' American says of CLT flight problems

Tuesday Update: American Airlines announced Tuesday that its regional carrier "has stabilized its computer systems" and is working to restore flights and get back to regular operations.

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American Airlines struggled to recover Monday from a recurring computer problem that left one of its key regional carriers unable to fly to or from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, stranding hundreds of passengers for the second time in a week.

The problem, airline spokeswoman Katie Cody said, traced back to the crew scheduling and tracking system at PSA Airlines, a wholly-owned subsidiary that operates flights under the American Eagle brand.

The issue is with hardware at PSA's headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, and it's left the carrier unable to get flight crews and planes matched up. About 350 flights into and out of Charlotte have been canceled since Sunday, Cody said.

"We do not know when this is going to be fixed," said Cody. "We're incredibly sorry."

As of Monday afternoon, the regional carrier planned to operate on a reduced schedule through at least the rest of the day and Tuesday. The airline is rebooking passengers on other available flights and refunding some as well.

At the airport Monday, there were lines at the car rental agencies, and Charlotte Douglas provided stranded passengers with essentials like diapers, blankets and pillows. American paid for about 800 hotel rooms Sunday night, Cody said.

An American Eagles Embraer 145 regional jet. Piedmont Airlines

Blanca Ochoa sat on a bench near the car rentals, waiting for an available car. For her, the rental car was the quickest way for her to get to Augusta, Ga., after her flight was canceled.

“If I didn’t have any other option, I would have to wait until Wednesday, which is unacceptable,” Ochoa said.

Charlotte is American's second-busiest hub, behind Dallas/Fort Worth. About 120,000 passengers or so travel through the airport on any given day, and roughly three-quarters are connecting from one plane to another.

Smaller airline, big impact

The problems at PSA highlight how crucial the often-overlooked regional airlines operating smaller planes are to the major carriers and their jumbo jets. At Charlotte Douglas, regional carriers account for about 55 percent of American Airlines' daily schedule.

Although they operate as separate companies with different pay scales for pilots and other employees, the regional airlines are, in the eyes of travelers, usually indistinguishable from the airlines whose names they bear.

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Many, like PSA, are completely owned by a major carrier as well. Regional airlines funnel large numbers of passengers to the hubs like Charlotte, where they connect to other planes to reach their final destination.

PSA operates a fleet of Bombardier jets that seat from 50 to 79 passengers, depending on the model. The airline flies from Charlotte to destinations throughout the East Coast and Midwest, including to cities such as Fayetteville, Little Rock, Ark., Tulsa, Okla., Gainesville, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y.

PSA canceled about 70 flights on Sunday, a bit more than 10 percent of the total at Charlotte Douglas. A similar number were planned to be canceled Monday night, Cody said.

For PSA, it was the second time in a week trouble struck. A technical issue with the regional carrier caused more than 120 Charlotte flights to be canceled last week, on Thursday, and the issue continued into Friday morning.

"We're having issues getting the crews assigned to the planes correctly," Cody said on Monday.

The canceled flights could have a negative effect on American Airlines' reputation, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst.

“This could not happen at a worse possible time,” because of peak summer travel season, he said.

The outage indicates there might not be a backup software system for crew scheduling at PSA, Harteveldt said. The problem also appears to be bigger than American first realized, he said.

“This is apparently a more complex problem than initially thought, and it could take several days, based on my understanding, potentially even a week, to really fix this,” he said. “Because this is summertime, flights are already heavily booked."

Similar outages of crew scheduling systems are rare, Harteveldt said.

“These types of failures are extremely infrequent because the systems have been designed to be stable,” he said. “I think we are going to continue to see some hiccups through the remainder of this week."

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