March 23, 2023

New Tools for Keeping the Lights On

Now, a decade after the largest blackout in American history, engineers are installing and linking 1,000 of those instruments, called phasor measurement units, to try to prevent another catastrophic power failure. When the work is done, the engineers say, they will have a diagnostic tool that makes the old system seem like taking a patient’s pulse compared with running a continuous electrocardiogram.

Gilbert C. Bindewald III, a program manager at the Energy Department, which has spent about $200 million to encourage their installation, said the instruments were “shedding light on the science that’s occurring behind the scenes, within the grid.”

Phasor measurement units work by measuring the rhythm of current at different points on the power grid. Readings at every point within each of the three North American grids — one covering the eastern two-thirds of North America, one covering the West, and one covering Texas — are supposed to be basically the same. If the measurements differ, it can be a sign of imminent collapse. When the current is flowing properly, phasor measurement units record normal readings — about as exciting as “watching paint dry,” in the words of Peter K. Lemme, a senior electrical engineer at the New York Independent System Operator, which runs New York’s grid. As Mr. Lemme spoke, he looked at a real-time display of phasor measurement units across the state.

But then he replayed New York records from an afternoon three weeks ago when a capacitor, a device that helps maintain voltage, suddenly failed at a substation near Utica. In response, measurements taken at an electrical substation near Rochester registered an enormous shock on a graph. In Leeds, south of Albany, the disruption was considerably milder. The disturbance gradually petered out, like a playground swing that slowly comes to rest.

If that glitch had been large enough to threaten a statewide power failure, the new devices could have alerted the engineers to the impending crisis and given them time to react, for example, by shutting down a part of the system to avoid cascading power failures. Tracy A. Flippo, the vice president for transmission operations at the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the devices could provide “precursor information” before a collapse.

The hope is that they could help prevent or at least limit a large-scale blackout like the one that happened a decade ago.

In 2003, as northern Ohio ran short of generation and transmission because of a combination of neglect, mismanagement and human error, circuit breakers took major transmission lines out of service. The power failure then cascaded across 600 miles, eight states and Canada. New York, Cleveland and Detroit went dark, as did Toronto and sections of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In New York office buildings were evacuated, thousands of commuters were stranded, and hospitals were flooded with patients suffering in the stifling heat.

“Somebody in Ohio could have recognized that we either need to raise generation or shed load,” said Richard Dewey, senior vice president of the New York Independent System Operator. Or, he said, New York could have seen trouble coming and insulated itself. The two units scrutinized after the blackout, one in Detroit and one in Cleveland, showed the strain.

Other changes to the grid should help, too. The federal government, for example, has given an industry group the authority to set standards. That group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, has levied substantial fines against companies that failed in tasks like trimming trees or testing equipment. Untrimmed trees and improper procedures for testing equipment have caused widespread power failures in recent years.

Joel deJesus, a former director of compliance enforcement at the corporation, said that in his view the large fines had been effective. “Wrists have been slapped pretty hard,” he said.

The network of phasor measurement units offers a technological advantage.

So far hundreds of phasor measurement units have been installed across the country, including 48 in New York.

Before then, the operators of the New York grid had only scattered data points within the state. For years they have been mostly blind to the grid outside New York, receiving only a few readings from devices at the borders with New England, Quebec, Ontario, and a region that includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.

But by the end of 2014, officials at the Energy Department said, they anticipate that all 1,000 phasor measurement units will be in operation and linked to one another. The next step, they said, was to figure out how to better present the flood of data to human operators in a useful way.

“The question is, How do we cue them to an event that a computer might be able to see coming?” said Mr. Bindewald of the Energy Department. Initially data will be integrated into computer displays, and later it may be used to set off automatic protective actions that would prevent or limit blackouts.

Experts argue that such a system could easily pay for itself. The 2003 blackout cost billions of dollars in lost economic output.

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With a Focus on Its Future, Financial Times Turns 125

On Wednesday, The F.T. is celebrating its 125th birthday. The newspaper’s London headquarters along the south bank of the Thames will be lit up in pink, the color of the paper on which it has been printed since shortly after it was founded. There will be a few parties — understated, of course, for these are straitened times in the City of London, and challenging ones for the newspaper industry.

Anniversaries are difficult for newspapers. At a time when they are losing subscribers and advertisers, and losing ground to digital media organizations that are still in their adolescence, few publishers want to emphasize their age.

But John Ridding, chief executive of The F.T., has a better digital story to tell than most other newspapers. True, the print editions are fading. But The F.T. has figured out how to make significant money from new outlets, without straying from its original purpose. So Mr. Ridding is not worried about looking back.

“Milestones matter,” he said. “In our industry, which has seen so much upheaval and disruption, it shows amazing continuity. The look and feel of the business was very different but there are some enduring constants that persist.”

In addition to its birthday, The F.T. can point to several other recent or pending milestones.

Last year the number of digital subscribers, now more than 300,000, surpassed the print circulation of the paper, which has slipped below that figure. This year, print and digital subscriptions and sales are set to overtake advertising as a source of revenue. Mobile devices now account for one-quarter of The F.T.’s digital traffic and about 15 percent of new subscriptions.

The F.T. was one of the first newspapers to charge readers for access to its Web site, which it did in 2002. It revamped its digital business model in 2007, moving to a “metered” approach, in which readers get a certain number of articles free before they are asked to subscribe.

Since 2007, The F.T.’s paying digital audience has tripled, and the metered approach has been adopted by other newspapers, including The New York Times.

With print circulation moving in the other direction — last year alone, it fell about 15 percent — The F.T. recently accelerated its move away from paper. In January, Lionel Barber, the paper’s editor, sent a memo to the staff, detailing a plan to “ensure that we are serving a digital platform first and a newspaper second.”

Under the plan, the print operations of The F.T. will be streamlined. While separate regional editions — for the United States, Britain, Continental Europe, Asia, India and the Middle East — will be maintained, there will be fewer nightly updates.

Editorial hierarchies will be simplified, Mr. Barber wrote, with an end to “octopus commissioning” under which reporters answer to multiple editors. Deadlines will be more strictly enforced. The paper is eliminating about three dozen editorial positions, though 10 posts are being created on the digital side.

Mr. Ridding described the new approach as “more of an evolution than a revolution.”

“It’s more of an intensification of an existing digital trend,” he said. “It’s driven by a need to redeploy resources to digital. That’s what readers want.”

It’s not all about cutting. The F.T. also continues to develop new products, like an F.T. Weekend mobile application, to accompany the Saturday/Sunday print edition, which remains an important source of advertising revenue; the app is set to be introduced shortly. Last year, The F.T. began publishing e-books with selected themes, compiling articles from the newspaper and enhancing them with material from journalists’ notebooks; the first one examined the possibility of a Greek exit from the euro zone.

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Car and Truck Sales Failed to Keep Pace in October

Major automakers said Thursday that vehicle sales in October declined in the month’s final days, as the storm forced hundreds of dealerships to close and consumers to delay car purchases in New York, New Jersey and other affected states.

Until the storm arrived, the pace of sales in October had been running slightly behind that of the rest of the year. Sales overall rose just 6.9 percent to about 1.09 million vehicles during October, compared with a 14.5 percent gain over the first nine months of the year, according to the research firm Autodata.

Analysts had been predicting an annual sales rate of about 14.7 million vehicles for October, but now say the rate fell at least 300,000 short of that.

Still, most car companies reported increases for the entire month, an indication that any interruption of the industry’s recovery was probably only temporary.

Storm devastation and disruption on the East Coast had an impact on hundreds of dealerships and brought showroom traffic to a halt even in areas spared the most severe damage.

Sitting in his office off an empty sales floor, Frank Lupo bemoaned the dearth of customers at his Acura dealership in Montclair, N.J. “Horrible,” Mr. Lupo said in assessing his business on Wednesday. “No customers today. Not one.”

Most of his calls that day came from people already trying to replace vehicles flooded by the hurricane. But Mr. Lupo is not expecting sales of replacement vehicles to begin any time soon, as insurers sort out claims and customers affected by the storm focus on more immediate needs.

“The last thing a person wants to do is buy a car,” he said. “They need to worry about their power, about their family.”

All the big automakers are trying to tally how many sales were lost in the storm, and when those customers will return.

Sales at General Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, rose 4.7 percent during October to 195,000 vehicles. A G.M. executive said the company was still calculating the impact of the hurricane on sales, but that its top priority now was assisting dealers shut by the storm.

“There’s no question that it had an impact,” said Kurt McNeil, G.M.’s head of United States sales. “A large number of vehicles were damaged, dealerships are underwater, there’s no power. There are some real horror stories out there.”

Mr. McNeil said that consumers usually returned to the marketplace within a month after a natural disaster. But he said the recovery from the storm could take longer because of the dense population areas affected by the storm.

“Probably half of our dealerships in the state of New Jersey are still without power,” he said.

G.M.’s two Detroit rivals, the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler, reported mixed results for the month.

Ford said its sales edged up 0.4 percent during the month to 168,000 vehicles, while Chrysler reported a 10 percent increase to 126,000 vehicles.

Both companies reported big gains in the sales of their smallest, most fuel-efficient passenger cars.

Among other automakers, Toyota and Honda continued their rebound from last year’s supply disruptions caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Toyota said its sales in October increased 15.8 percent to 155,000 vehicles, and Honda reported an 8.8 percent gain to 106,000. Nissan’s sales fell 3.2 percent to 79,000.

The German carmaker Volkswagen kept up its healthy sales pace in October, reporting a 20.4 percent increase in sales of VW and Audi models to 46,000 vehicles. Estimates varied on how many vehicle sales were lost because of the storm, which affected a geographic area that accounts for from 20 to 25 percent of national sales. The car research Web site estimated a loss of about 30,000 sales in the final days of the month, while Ford said it could be as low as 20,000.

The larger question facing the industry is how long it will take for shuttered dealerships to reopen and for consumers in the affected areas to resume shopping for new models.

“In some areas it’s going to take longer than a month,” said Mr. McNeil of G.M.

Analysts said the relative affluence of the New York metropolitan area should get the industry back on track sooner than it did in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Katrina affected areas where the income level was lower and the damage was almost irreparable in some places,” said Jesse Toprak, chief market analyst at the auto research site

The recovery in storm-damaged areas should begin quickly once power is restored and infrastructure is repaired, he said, but “it’s going to be a very slow November for at least two weeks in the impacted areas.”

An untold number of vehicles were damaged by flooding during the storm.

The president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, Mark Schienberg, said the number of flooded cars and trucks could reach into the tens of thousands.

The association represents 425 new-car dealerships in the state, and his offices tried to contact more than 100 stores on Wednesday. Of those, 60 percent did not answer the phone.

“Those we did speak with had flooding or wind damage or other damage to property,” said Mr. Schienberg, who owns domestic and import dealerships in the state. “I’m so amazed by the amount of vehicle damage.”

Mr. Toprak said that consumers might not begin replacing damaged vehicles in large numbers until December, particularly if insurance payments are delayed because of the volume of hurricane-related claims.

When they do come back to the market, consumers will most likely continue the buying trends that have made auto sales a rare bright spot in the overall American economy.

Small car sales are surging at both domestic and import manufacturers. Signs also suggest that pickup sales will accelerate along with housing starts. Mr. McNeil of G.M. said he expected a surge of interest in pickups in the final months of the year.

“Housing has been the stumbling block in the national recovery and the auto recovery,” he said. “Now it looks like we are at or near an inflection point.”

Bill Vlasic reported from Detroit. Andrew Martin contributed reporting from Montclair, N.J., andMary M. Chapman contributed from Detroit.

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BUSINESS: Ericsson’s Chief on Surviving Disruption

September 25, 2012

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Business Briefing | Company News: Walgreen Begins to Offer a Special Prescription Plan

Walgreen is introducing a national plan it hopes will minimize customer disruption from its contract battle over payments with its pharmacy benefits manager, Express Scripts. For customers who want to remain, Walgreen’s plan includes a special discount in January to customers for its prescriptions savings club. Though those enrolled in drug plans managed by Express Scripts will have better coverage and pay less by using another pharmacy, Gregory D. Wasson, Walgreen’s chief executive, said the discounts Walgreen would offer through its prescription savings club would be competitive on generic drugs and most therapeutic categories.

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Plan to Leave Euro for Drachma Gains Support in Greece

So now it is time to ponder the once unthinkable: that Greece might end its 10-year use of the euro and return to its former currency, the drachma.

Such a move is still officially anathema in Athens. But a growing body of economists argues that it would be the best course, whatever the near-term financial and economic implications. And now, with a referendum on the European-led bailout facing Greek voters, a vocal minority that has long called for a return to the drachma might find itself with a growing group of listeners.

A return to the drachma is unlikely to offer a quick cure for Greece’s ills. Default on the nation’s $500 billion in public debt would become a certainty, depositors would take their money out of local banks and, with a sharp devaluation of as much as 50 percent, inflation would loom. A return to the international credit markets would take years.

But drachma defenders contend that these worst fears are overdone. Yes, there would be disruption and panic initially. But, they say, pointing to Argentina’s case when it broke its peg with the dollar in 2002, the export boom ignited by a cheaper currency and the ability to control the drachma would eventually work in Greece’s favor.

“The real problem is that we are operating under a foreign currency,” Vasilis Serafeimakis, a senior executive at Avinoil, one of Greece’s largest oil and gas distribution companies, said of the euro. In the last year, he has been banging the bring-back-the-drachma drum.

“If we had our own currency, we could at least print money,” Mr. Serafeimakis said, referring to the ability to revalue the drachma. “And what is the worst thing that happens if we do this? I don’t get a Christmas gift from one of my bankers.”

His voice is still a lonely one.

According to a recent poll in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, 66 percent of Greeks believe that returning to the drachma would be bad. But proponents of a euro exit say that beneath the surface, more Greeks are beginning to question the euro.

“The view that Greece should exit the euro is more widespread than you would think,” said Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek economist at the University of London who has long pressed for a return to the drachma. “It is just that the opposing view is so dominant.”

Until now, many Greeks have been wedded to a European identity forged by a national embrace of the euro and the wealth that, for a time, came along with it. Talk of returning to the drachma had mainly been held up as an apocalyptic vision rather than a viable policy option.

But for a growing number of Greeks, the collapse of their economy is apocalypse enough.

Prime Minister George A. Papandreou threw down the gauntlet to the Greek people Monday when he surprised the world by announcing a referendum on the latest bailout plan. But it was his finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, who that same day put a finer point on the question.

“Are we for Europe, the euro zone and the euro?” he asked. Or, he continued, does Greece return to the drachma?

Under the latest bailout plan from Europe, Greek debt held by private institutions would be written down by 50 percent. In return, as long as Greece stayed on track carrying out painful austerity measures through 2015, Athens would continue to receive more bailout money to finance its remaining debt.

When Mr. Papandreou brought that tentative deal back from Brussels last week, the escalated protests and rioting on Greek streets were a sign that it was not something his people would easily stand for.

Supporters of a return to the drachma note that the severe budget cuts of the last two years had resulted in almost closing the budget deficit — as long as interest payments on its debt are not counted.

Stripping out interest payments, Greece is expected to register a budget surplus next year of 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product (compared with a budget deficit of 8 percent of G.D.P., when interest is counted), and that, in effect, would give it the freedom to stop paying its debts.

It is an argument for defaulting on the debt and starting over, in other words. That sense of reborn autonomy is what lies behind the drachma movement that Mr. Serafeimakis is promoting.

Eleni Varvitsioti contributed reporting.

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RIM Says Systems Restored for Blackberrys

Research in Motion said Thursday that it had resolved the technical issues that had frustrated BlackBerry users on five continents for several days, but that it might take a while yet for service to return completely to normal.

Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the company’s co-chief executives, said that the backlog of e-mails and messages, which has been building since Monday in some parts of the world, was still creating delays for some BlackBerry users.

“I want to apologize to all the BlackBerry users we let down,” Mr. Lazaridis said during a news conference. “Our inability to quickly fix this has been frustrating.”

The service problems, the executives said, apparently resulted from the failure of a key piece of switching hardware in the closed network RIM operates for BlackBerry data services. That was followed by the failure of a backup system.

The result was the longest and most extensive disruption to BlackBerry service since the device was launched 12 years ago. The hardware shut down service in Europe, the Middle East and Africa on Monday, which Mr. Lazaridis said created “a ripple effect” around the rest of the world.

While Mr. Lazaridis offered a separate video apology to customers, both he and Mr. Balsillie declined to answer questions about what compensation, if any, RIM intends to offer users.

“Our focus has been 100 percent on getting systems up and running,” Mr. Balsillie said, adding that the company will now begin to look at ways of placating customers.

This week’s hit couldn’t come at a worse time for the handset maker, which is fending off a growing crowd of agitated investors, who are calling on the company to explore strategic options and new leadership. Shares of the company have fallen nearly 60 percent this year as smartphone buyers increasingly choose Android phones or iPhones. On Wednesday, as news of the spreading network problems caused shares of RIM to dip even lower, falling more than 2 percent to close at $23.88.

Analysts say that RIM was battling to restore more than service to the millions faced with glitches to BlackBerry cellphone service. The company was also fighting for its foothold in a rapidly changing industry.

“It’s symbolic of what’s going on at the company,” said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC partners who follows the telecom industry. “It’s a bloodbath.”

The Waterloo, Ontario, company’s grasp on the global smartphone market has steadily declined over the past few years. In 2008, the company commanded 46 percent of the market share for mobile devices around the world, according to data from IDC, a research firm. But by the first half of 2011, that hold had weakened under the surging popularity of the products from rivals, sliding to 12 percent. The company had hoped to revive its business and dazzle consumers with the BlackBerry PlayBook, a 7-inch touch-screen tablet, but the device has yet to gain traction among a broad audience.

At the same time, dozens of sleek new Android devices are arriving on store shelves in time for the holiday season and Apple is releasing the latest version of the iPhone on Friday.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner, said that the biggest remaining question was whether the recent hiccups would prompt current BlackBerry owners to switch to other handsets. “Wireless access has become mission critical and people depend on it,” he said. “Any kind of outage is a serious problem.”

Frustration erupted on social media sites like Twitter and online forums that cater to the owners of BlackBerry devices. “Uugh. If i don’t get back to you today, this is why. BlackBerry outage appears to be spreading,” a user named Diana_Knight posted to Twitter on Wednesday.

On, a popular online forum that caters to BlackBerry owners, a thread called “Enough is Enough” had attracted thousands of views and hundreds of comments by Wednesday afternoon. “This is it. This is the boiling point. Someone has to go over to Waterloo and slap those in charge at RIM,” wrote a user going by the name BlackLion15.

Such failures are not rare occurrences for RIM. Last month, BlackBerry’s popular messaging service crashed for several hours in parts of Latin America and Canada.

Because RIM sends its data through its own servers, any disruptions are felt by larger swaths of users than for other handset makers. That can be infuriating for wireless carriers who are helpless at the annoyances of their customers who are using BlackBerrys on their network.

Representatives for Verizon, ATT and Deutsche Telekom, all of which sell BlackBerry phones, declined to comment, deferring to RIM to address the outages.

On Thursday, Mr. Balisillie said senior executives at carriers around the world have been supportive rather than angry.

“People understand the complexity of these systems and when something like this happens everyone pulls together,” he said.

By Wednesday morning, Wall Street was alight with e-mails from technology departments notifying employees of the problem. Bankers’ meetings fell through when attendees couldn’t look up the locations. Employees were reduced to leaving voice-mail messages.

The RIM failure coincided with a major wireless industry conference in San Diego, where many companies that carry RIM’s traffic complained of getting little or no information about just what had gone wrong or how long it will take to fix. Others were less concerned about the industry than their own communications. “With this outage, people will say enough is enough.” said Frank Nein, an industry analyst with 9Sight2020, who said he had met representatives of RIM Tuesday. “And they didn’t have any answers about the network. They didn’t have any decent response to all these consumer devices coming into their turf.”

Mr. Yach said that the company was not currently exploring options such as compensating customers for the period of time their services were offline.

“Our priority is getting the service back up and running,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what is going to make our customers the happiest.”

A few financial professionals saw a small silver lining on Wednesday. Alex Maloney, a director at Perkins Fund Marketing, a placement agent for hedge funds, said the service interruption was actually a nice vacation from gloomy e-mails.

“This is not necessarily the worst time for an outage,” he said. “It’s not like people are getting a whole lot of positive e-mails this day, given the turmoil in the financial markets.”

Quentin Hardy and Evelyn M. Rusli contributed reporting.

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S.&P. Downgrades Debt Rating of U.S. For the First Time

The company, one of three major agencies that offer advice to investors in debt securities, said it was cutting its rating of long-term federal debt to AA+, one notch below the top grade of AAA. It described the decision as a judgment about the nation’s leaders, writing that “the gulf between the political parties” had reduced its confidence in the government’s ability to manage its finances.

“The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenge,” the company said in a statement.

The Obama administration reacted with indignation, noting that the company had made a significant mathematical mistake in a document that it provided to the Treasury Department on Friday afternoon, overstating the federal debt by about $2 trillion.

“A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself,” a Treasury spokeswoman said.

The downgrade could lead investors to demand higher interest rates from the federal government and other borrowers, raising costs for governments, businesses and home buyers. But many analysts say the impact could be modest, in part because the other ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, have decided not to downgrade the government at this time.

The announcement came after markets closed for the weekend, but there was no evidence of any immediate disruption. A spokesman for the Federal Reserve said the decision would not affect the ability of banks to borrow money by pledging government debt as collateral, a statement that could set the tone for the reaction of the broader market.

S. P. had prepared investors for the downgrade announcement with a series of warnings earlier this year that it would act if Congress did not agree to increase the government’s borrowing limit and adopt a long-term plan for reducing its debts by at least $4 trillion over the next decade.

Earlier this week, President Obama signed into law a Congressional compromise that raised the debt ceiling but reduced the debt by at least $2.1 trillion.

On Friday, the company notified the Treasury that it planned to issue a downgrade after the markets closed, and sent the department a copy of the announcement, which is a standard procedure.

A Treasury staff member noticed the $2 trillion mistake within the hour, according to a department official. The Treasury called the company and explained the problem. About an hour later, the company conceded the problem but did not indicate how it planned to proceed, the official said. Hours later, S. P. issued a revised release with new numbers but the same conclusion.

In a statement early Saturday morning, Standard Poor’s said the difference could be attributed to a “change in assumptions” in its methodology but that it had “no impact on the rating decision.”

In a release on Friday announcing the downgrade, it warned that the government still needed to make progress in paying its debts to avoid further downgrades.

“The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics,” it said.

The credit rating agencies have been trying to restore their credibility after missteps leading to the financial crisis. A Congressional panel called them “essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction” after their wildly optimistic models led them to give top-flight reviews to complex mortgage securities that later collapsed. A downgrade of federal debt is the kind of controversial decision that critics have sometimes said the agencies are unwilling to make.

Eric Dash contributed reporting from New York.

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Computer Failure Delays United Flights Nationwide

Passengers were stranded at airports across the country Friday night after a failure in United Airlines’ computer system, the airline said.

The disruption set off widespread delays at airports in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, with many passengers left sitting in terminals or stuck on planes that were grounded.

United said in a statement that the problems began at 8:15 p.m. New York time, when the computer failure knocked out its flight departures, airport processing and reservations systems. The statement did not address the nationwide delays, and a spokesman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

It was not clear what had set off the computer failure, but United said in its statement that it had a technology team in place that was struggling to restore the system.

“We apologize for the disruption being caused to travelers at affected airports, and we are seeking to resume operations as quickly as possible,” the airline said.

Just before 2:00 a.m. New York time, United updated its Twitter feed to say it had started to resolve the problem.

“Our systems are up. We are in the process of resuming ops for UA,” the Twitter message said.

Passengers at San Francisco International Airport reported a chaotic scene at the United terminal, while others waiting for flights at various airports around the country took to Twitter as they sat in limbo.

“Sitting on the plane in Chicago wanting to go home so badly but the whole computer system at United Airlines has shut down,” wrote @RonRhoads. “Delayed!”

Another stranded passenger, @mettlinger, posted from Dulles International Airport, or IAD: “Latest announcement at IAD: ‘Every computer system United Airlines has is down … Our computers are paperweights.’ ”

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Stocks Plummet on Disappointing Economic Reports

Just ahead of the government’s monthly jobs report for May, investors got a disappointing look at the trend in hiring over the last few weeks. The monthly report from ADP Employer Services, the payroll processing firm, said that private employers added 38,000 jobs in May, lower than expectations and the smallest increase since September 2010.

Economists said that the figure in the ADP survey, far less than the 175,000 jobs that had been forecast, could have been a reflection of severe storms in many parts of the country that month, while automobile manufacturers have temporarily laid off workers in response to a disruption in supply chains. Economists from Capital Economics Ltd. said in a research note that the dip also reflected a slowdown in the growth in the service sector.

As a result, some economists lowered their forecasts for the May nonfarm payroll employment numbers, which are to be released by the government on Friday. Goldman Sachs economists said they now expect the payrolls number to come in at 100,000 compared with their previous forecast of 150,000.

“While the ADP report has a mixed track record in forecasting payroll growth, our research indicates it should receive some weight,” they said in a research note. “Moreover, the weakness in the ADP report follows a streak of weaker-than-expected news on both the labor market and activity as whole.”

The slower growth in employment along with fewer new orders were factors in the lower measure of manufacturing last month. In its survey of 18 manufacturing industries, the Institute for Supply Management index fell to a 19-month low of 53.5 points last month from 60.4 the previous month. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had estimated that the index would decline to 57.1 points.

“Pressures from rising commodity costs, plus supply-chain disruptions from Japan’s natural disaster, and extreme weather domestically, have combined to slow manufacturing’s momentum,” said Nigel Gault, IHS Global Insight’s chief United States economist.

“This is particularly worrying since manufacturing has been the economy’s shining star,” he added in a research note.

On Wall Street, financials fared poorly in early trading, declining more than 2 percent. Materials, industrials and energy stocks declined by more than 1 percent.

At the close, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 279.65 points, or 2.22 percent, at 12,290.14. The Standard Poor’s 500-stock index was down 30.65 points, or 2.28 percent, at 1,314.55, and the Nasdaq composite index was down 66.11 points, or 2.33 percent, at 2,769.19.

As stocks slumped, investors turned their attention to safer assets, pushing government bond prices higher. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note fell to 2.95 percent from 3.06 percent late Tuesday.

Kevin H. Giddis, the executive managing director and president for fixed-income capital markets at Morgan Keegan Company, said Treasuries rose in reaction to the latest economic reports. He said the latest statistics suggested “what appears to be a significant slowdown” in the economy in the last month.

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