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Air Canada officials spent Friday trying to find the cause of a massive network failure that brought down the company's reservation system, grounding flights and delaying thousands of weekend travellers at airports across Canada and around the world.

Around 4 a.m., Air Canada's operations ground to a halt when its central reservation system experienced a communication error with computer systems at Canadian airports. It was several hours before the airline was able to rectify the problem, resulting in the cancellation of eight round-trip flights and lengthy delays for an estimated 96,000 passengers as employees had to process boarding passes manually.

Although Air Canada pegged the average delay at 40 minutes, many travellers said they were left waiting for hours. By Friday afternoon, some were still languishing in lineups, while Air Canada struggled to expedite the backlog, predicting everyone would reach their destinations before the day was over. Meanwhile, company officials tried to figure out what went wrong.

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"The people who are involved with this are busy getting it fixed and I think the time for postmortems will come later," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said. "It's a man-made thing so every now and then it's going to have a problem. When you handle as many people a day as we do and you have a problem, it affects a lot of people."

Air Canada's reservation software is called RES III and is based on 30-year-old technology originally developed by British Airways. RES III is a derivative of a program called Babs, which is no longer in use by the British airline, but is similar to systems still employed by many U.S. carriers.

"It's been quite reliable," Mr. Fitzpatrick said of the RES III system. "We haven't had issues like this very often."

Last year, Air Canada announced it had hired a U.S. firm to develop a new Web-based reservation system, dubbed Polaris, as part of a company-wide makeover. The new system is "expected to generate productivity improvement in call centres, airport check-in and revenue accounting," according to Air Canada's 2006 annual report.

Although Air Canada had originally planned to begin implementing Polaris toward the end of 2007, Mr. Fitzpatrick said it wouldn't be rolled out until next year.

At Pearson International Airport in Toronto, passenger Michelle Koerner and her two children put their travel plans to West Palm Beach, Fla., on hold when she heard her 8:40 a.m. flight had been delayed.

"My baby is 10 months old. It's tough for people travelling with kids," she said.

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She knew something was wrong when she noticed camera crews and a lineup beginning at Terminal 1.

"It went from international boarding all the way to the Starbucks at the end of the building and then back around. I've never seen anything like this. There must have been a thousand people in line," she said.

Howard Simons, a passenger from Cambridge, Ont., whose 8:40 a.m. flight to Houston for a business trip was delayed, said he was worried about a different inconvenience.

"I'm an Orthodox Jew. My Sabbath starts tonight. That means I can't take a cab. I can't travel. I can't buy anything."

Air Canada experienced a similar embarrassing malfunction in October, 2004, when its system went down for 45 minutes the day after unveiling new uniforms, newly designed planes and a promotional partnership with singer Celine Dion.

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