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“Is Something Fishy With All the Airline Computer Outages?”

Passengers gather at the American Airlines check-in for flights at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Computer problems forced American Airlines to ground flights across the country Tuesday after the airline was unable to check passengers in and book passengers. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

That’s basically how the question has been posed to me following last week’s immense computer meltdown (I’m pretty sure that’s the appropriate technical term.) at Delta Airlines, which affected its flights worldwide. Delta is back on its feet; however, many people wonder if the story is just developing.

I’m talking about those like an acquaintance who asked worriedly if it might be ISIS. For the record, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist. I also think she’s looking in the wrong corner of the world for possible culprits (seeing how ISIS is less into covert financial sabotage and more into bloody attention stunts). That said, she can’t be blamed for noticing what can appear as a pattern – the country’s major airlines have each been hit with notable computer problems, one after the other, over the course of a year or so.

July 8, 2015 – United

The series opener lasted a few hours, affecting 4,900 flights. The problem was attributed to a “network connectivity issue” caused by a single faulty network server. This outage alone raised some eyebrows since it coincided with outages at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Stock Exchange.

Sept 17, 2015 – American

The blame for this outage was given the same vague “network connectivity problem” explanation as United’s and reportedly traced back to Chicago O’Hare. While flights were grounded at three hubs, I think many people confuse this outage with the even larger one American experienced in April 2013 which grounded planes “from coast to coast.”

January 16, 2016 – JetBlue

This event wasn’t the blow-out that some of these were, but JetBlue certainly took its turn with an “intermittent network issues due to a data center power outage.”

July 20, 2016 – Southwest

This one got an exceptional amount of coverage this summer. It’s said to have been caused by a faulty network router but the story was bigger than that, with details later adding that the IT system failed, as did the backup system and the restoration process. That is extraordinary. Reportedly a 12-hour reboot was required to get things going again.

August 8, 2016 – Delta

Affecting flights worldwide, a fire is said to have started this one, which caused a power cut to the Atlanta data center – a cut that backup systems failed to handle correctly. Delta says, “Around 300 of about 7,000 data center components were discovered to not have been configured appropriately” to make use of backup power.”

Of course, this clean one-by-one order only holds within a certain framing. This website has been tracking major computer faults in the industry and illustrates a less organized picture of victims, but that’s unlikely to deter many suspicions. Our brains still like to see patterns.

While every major computer problem earns a few mumbles about sabotage, Delta’s outage was the first to generate random questions to me as to whether I’m suspicious. When I mentioned that to a Delta insider I was told some were making the same observation (personal commentary only). In turn I asked a friend/expert in computer security, who responded that it had been the talk around her office last week, and maybe a closer look should be taken.

However, many experts confidently present a less nefarious explanation. It’s only marginally more comforting to the traveler’s plans, since the problems are predicted to keep on coming.

It starts with the observation that most industry systems date from the late 1990s. This is easy to believe considering the warnings we’ve had about America’s shockingly antiquated ATC systems for as long as I can remember. Add to that: airline computer systems run 24-hours a day, 365-days per year. There is no such thing as a shutdown for maintenance. This contributes to what George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog, describes as a “hodgepodge of equipment that’s been cobbled together over the years.”

Mergers have contributed, with ever more interlinked and combined systems having to be integrated within the 24/365 operating demands. One expert compared it to trying to maintain an aircraft in flight – all being performed in an environment where powerhouse tech talent is hard to attract. Flight benefits struggle to compete as enticement against the salaries and stock options that places like Google (et cetera) can and will offer.

Whether your intuition lends you towards suspicious explanations or not, it’s undeniable that our industry tech is worryingly vulnerable. Does it matter why you think it’s happening? Ask the traveler who’s trying to decide which the wisest airline to book with next.

[Photo: Continuity Insights]

Comments are Closed.
KRSW August 17, 2016

Piss Poor Planning to blame for all of these...

formeraa August 16, 2016

Add to emcampbe's analysis that the airlines have been under intense pressure to reduce costs over the past three decades. It is likely that the IT budget was under pressure as well. One thing that many don't realize is that many airline IT employees were laid off after 9/11 and never hired back (had some friends in this position). I agree that the airline IT systems are begging for re-design, but again it will take billions of dollars and years to do this. Who is going to pay for that???

emcampbe August 16, 2016

Yes - and its mentioned right here - its the older computer systems having to deal with multiple things it wasn't really built for - free upgrades at the gate, sales of ancilliary items just about anywhere, and in most cases, rather then building a new system from scratch, airlines have been building systems on top of other systems. It's not ideal, for sure, and one thing goes wrong, leads to everything going wrong. It's like the really old Christmas lights where one bulb went out and they all did! I'd actually like to see Apple or Google (etc.) take on this kind of IT system - do to the airline systems what was done to mobile phones. No, these two companies aren't perfect (and I use them only as examples). But I would love to see a consumer-oriented reservation/airline IT system built from the ground up which would incorporate the various functions airlines use now but their systems weren't really built with in mind, allow for future innovation and scaling, and would allow employees to easily manage the things they need to, while giving passengers an easy way to manage their reservations and profiles. Imagine a smartphone-type of revelation to the airline computer systems.