Delta Air Lines Chief Ed Bastian partially attributed recent computer glitches that have plagued airlines and grounded thousands of flights, on the airlines’ lean years following the 9/11 attacks.
In recent years, computer crashes have become almost as big a potential headache for air travelers as the threat of winter storms. In January, a computer glitch led to the cancellation of at least 280 Delta Air Lines flights. Less than a month later, United Airlines flights were subject to system-wide delays following a crash of the airline’s flight planning network. To varying degrees, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have all suffered similar nightmare scenarios involving IT glitches.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian told the Business Insider that at least a portion of the problems involving the airline industry’s IT systems can be attributed to what he refers to as “the lost decade” following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bastian explained that during these lean years, airlines were more concerned with financial survival than trying to remain on the cutting edge of the latest advances in computer technology.
“Many of us went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and restructuring,” Bastian told the Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang. “The only money we had to spend on technology was just to keep the lights on. It was all about ‘break’ ‘fix’ which means if something breaks you fix it. There was no innovation.”
Bastian insists that the trend has reversed itself in recent years as US airlines continue to post record earnings. He says, no longer an afterthought, IT is now one of Delta’s primary areas of focus.
“I’ve told our people that next to them, technology has to be our competitive advantage,” Bastian continued. “We are in the business of building relationships and our technology allows us to build intimate relationships with 180 million customers a year and you can only do that through technology.”
Bastian and Delta Airlines are not alone in redoubling investment in critical computer upgrades and IT infrastructure. Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden told the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation that his company has increasingly made IT a top priority over the last five years and the management at other legacy carriers have echoed that same sentiment.
“It’s a big, big concern for every U.S. company. It’s a particular concern for airlines,” Tilden told lawmakers in March. “We have gone from roughly $50 million a year to roughly $200 million spent on IT.”
The results of the airline industry’s rush to beef up IT infrastructure might not be immediately apparent. If the string of computer crashes that have left passengers stranded in recent months can be traced back to financial woes of the early 2000’s, it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that the newly increased investment in technology over the last few years might take some time to noticeably improve the lives of air travelers.