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"Outages at Airlines Can Spiral"


 
Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Outages at Airlines Can Spiral 
Aviation-Industry Computer Breakdowns Unleash More Problems Faster Than
Those in Other Fields
By SUSAN CAREY 
The Wall Street Journal


A passenger stranded at Denver International Airport by a United Airlines
computer outage June 17. 

A recent spate of technology glitches at U.S. airlines has inconvenienced
thousands of travelers, spawned long airport lines, delayed or canceled
flights and led to a wave of negative publicity.

United Continental Holdings Inc.'s United Airlines unit suffered a meltdown
June 17 that forced it to cancel 36 flights and delay another 100. US
Airways Group Inc. was hit by separate glitches on June 10, 18 and 19.

Alaska Air Group Inc. had its turn back in March, canceling 150 flights
affecting more than 12,000 customers. Earlier in March, Southwest Airlines
Co. experienced two separate technical foul-ups within two days, although
the one related to the rollout of its revamped frequent-flier program didn't
delay flights.

With packed planes leaving little room for error, airlines are trying myriad
upgrades and other solutions to keep their computers running everything from
flight dispatching to crew scheduling, passenger check-ins,
airport-departure boards, ticket sales and frequent-flier programs.

Airlines continually upgrade their technology infrastructure to make it more
durable, adding redundant power supplies to their computing centers and
other facilities, increasing the number of backup telecom providers, and
hiring outside companies that specialize in technology to handle such
critical functions as reservations.

The world's 200 largest airlines expect to spend about 1.8% of their
operating revenue on information technology this year, according to the
latest annual survey by Airline Business magazine and SITA, a provider of
airborne communications and IT technology. And that doesn't include the IT
investments included in their capital budgets.

Increasingly, carriers are shifting their IT spending to services designed
to help fliers communicate with their airlines so they can get out of travel
messes or avoid them altogether. The SITA-Airline Business survey found
carriers' priorities also include flight-status notifications, electronic
boarding passes, merchandising upgrades and improving customer
relationships. 

The goal is to take everything the airline knows about a passenger-including
past itineraries, frequent-flier status, seat preference and current
routing-and customize solutions that can help whether the customer is caught
in a blizzard or just looking for a seat with more legroom.

Experts say full-blown airline computer breakdowns are relatively rare. But
when problems do crop up, they can have huge consequences. 

"Every industry in this day and age is dependent on their computers," says
Scott Nason, a consultant and retired executive of AMR Corp.'s American
Airlines who was once the carrier's chief information officer. "But it's
rare when a computer failure" in another industry "has such an immediate and
massive effect on the public."

When departing flights can't take off, tie-ups at hub airports follow
because gates aren't available for arriving flights. Further delays arise
because planes and crews are out of position. It can take days for a carrier
to recover and get all of its passengers to their destinations.

The problems, often arcane, can be caused by bad hardware, corrupted
software, the failure of backup systems to kick in or human error. Electric
power supplies can go on the fritz, and so can telecom networks connecting
internal airline operations with airports and data centers.

Experts say the disruptions often occur when an airline or technology vendor
is performing maintenance, installing an upgrade or making a major
technology transfer.

Sometimes, it is simpler. Mr. Nason recalls a time in the early 1980s when a
possum chewed through a cable at an American data center in Tulsa, bringing
the IT system down for hours.

Alaska Airlines' March outage came when the carrier was upgrading its power
system in its primary data center and a transformer blew, briefly cutting
off electricity, says Kris Kutchera, the airline's vice president of
information technology.

As one result, she says, Alaska Airlines is moving to link its main data
center to a second utility grid.

The last time Alaska had a power outage, in 2001, it took four days to get
the airline's systems working again. But Alaska was able to continue
operating-albeit slowly-because it reverted to manual processes. "We had
paper tickets, paper manuals, paper weight-and-balance calculations," Ms.
Kutchera says. "Now, when the system is down, we can't operate."

Derek Kerr, US Airways' chief financial officer, recently took on the
carrier's IT responsibility. "I didn't know it was so exciting until the
last few weeks," he says of three separate power problems that knocked out
data centers or facilities at the airline's hubs in Phoenix, Charlotte and
Philadelphia. "There's a lot for us to learn here." 

Once a failure occurs, it's crucial for airlines to respond to customers.
Mr. Kerr says he is pleased US Airways didn't cancel any flights because of
its outages, although there were delays.

Ms. Kutchera says Alaska Airlines followed up with all of its affected
passengers within two weeks to offer them financial compensation for the
cancellations and delays. "It's not about what happens to you but how you
respond to it," she says.

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