By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fire at an air traffic facility in New Jersey on Friday knocked out electronics that help coordinate flights into and out of airports, and airlines said the glitch worsened a day of heavy delays and cancellations triggered by storms in the eastern United States.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the early afternoon (EDT) fire at its technical center in Atlantic City knocked out servers and left some automated systems used to efficiently communicate the status of airport ground operations temporarily unavailable.
With digital information unavailable, airlines could not plan and track their flights as quickly as they normally would at the start of another busy summer weekend for travelers, especially in and out of New York, the world's busiest air space.
The FAA said its ability to direct flights in the air was unaffected and backup data kicked in and offered some relief for affected operations.
But the agency's sprawling command center outside of Washington mainly had to coordinate airport conditions with other agency facilities and airlines via telephone, which maintained safe operations but slowed communications for thousands of flights.
On a clear day, the FAA outage probably would have been less apparent with airport conditions more predictable. But heavy thunderstorms prompted the FAA to ground or delay flights in New York temporarily for safety, leading to changes in airport operations.
Any major delay in New York will affect flights elsewhere, especially in other East Coast cities.
Delta Air Lines alone canceled 300 flights. United Airlines, American Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue Airways canceled large numbers of flights as well.
The explosion and fire that witnesses said generated towering flames forced evacuation of the FAA center and also interrupted the agency's Internet, including its www.fly.faa.gov website and emails.
Atlantic City's airport adjacent to the fire-damaged facility closed temporarily, State Police said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation and FAA data systems were not fully operational as of Friday night.
Before the fire, all three big New York-area airports halted traffic for a time while storms passed through the area, setting in motion a ripple effect of service problems throughout the day that would worsen after the FAA fire, airlines said.
Bad weather also affected flights in San Francisco.
United told passengers that weather and FAA-related flight delays and cancellations would continue into Saturday at New York-area airports, Philadelphia and Washington.
Delta canceled 300 flights, while JetBlue Airways said it canceled nearly 70. US Airways reported 46 mainline and more than 200 Express flight cancellations. All three blamed weather and the FAA outage.
American Airlines advised passengers via Twitter of long waits in the Northeast due to the FAA glitch and storms, which generally are the primary reason for delays and cancellations industry wide.
"We appreciate your patience," American tweeted to its passengers.
(Reporting By John Crawley; Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Paul Simao)