In response to a string of high profile computer crashes (which have at times grounded hundreds of flights) in recent years, federal auditors were tasked with finding out how many passengers on U.S. airlines were affected by the outages of flight planning, dispatch or reservation systems, but instead learned the carriers are unlikely to report when IT glitches delay or cancel flights.
U.S. airlines are now required to report each instance of a passenger’s luggage being mishandled, damaged, lost or delayed. For decades, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has ranked U.S. carriers in published reports on the basis of on-time performance, customer service complaints, involuntary denied boardings and even the treatment of live animals under their care, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed this month that there are not any rules in place requiring the airlines to report when flights are delayed or canceled due to IT issues – even in cases in which nearly all of an airline’s fleet is temporarily grounded (as was the case at United Airlines in 2015 and 2016 and again in 2017).
“In recent years, the airline industry experienced several well-publicized IT system outages to reservation, check-in, flight planning, and other systems,” the GAO noted in its just released investigation into Airline IT outages. “Such outages can result in widespread disruption to air travel, inconveniencing passengers, who may be delayed or face out-of-pocket costs, and can also affect airlines’ revenue and operations.”
In investigating the effects of IT-related airline delays, federal auditors soon learned that there are almost no requirements in place ensuring airlines to report any such significant technical issues. U.S. carriers are required to report most flight delays and cancelations but are not obligated to specify if the delays are related to IT issues.
In the absence of a database of serious airline IT issues, auditors combed through customer complaints and other public filings to get an admittedly incomplete picture of the problem. Earlier this month, a software bug disrupted more than 400 flights operated by American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airlines, but the widespread computer issue was barely noticed (even by most media outlets).
The audit not only drew attention to the fact that the full magnitude of the effects of continuing airline technical difficulties is nearly impossible to gauge, but the officials also faulted the industry for taking a piecemeal approach to dealing with IT issues when they arise. Auditors managed to confirm 34 serious IT-related incidents involving U.S. airlines between June of 2015 and June 2018. The vast majority of those incidents were determined to have resulted in flight delays and cancelations.
“Because of limited data, information about how passengers have been inconvenienced from outages is largely anecdotal,” the report concluded. “Further, airlines vary in what they provide to these passengers (e.g., food, hotel, or rebooking on another airline) when IT outages occur.”
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