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Report: United Airlines Lost Track of Hundreds of Pilots Because of Computer Problems

Jan 10, 2014 4:00 pm

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So much for some of the talk that United’s merger integration and tech woes are behind it.

— Dennis Schaal

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United Airlines

A United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. United Airlines


United Airlines is suffering a computer system malfunction that stranded pilots and caused canceled flights, evidence the company is still struggling to integrate Continental Airlines more than three years after the merger closed, people with knowledge of the matter said.

The breakdown contributed to the scrapping of almost 1,500 flights as the airline also grappled with unseasonably cold weather, said the people — five United employees who were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. United’s crew desk lost track of hundreds of pilots around the world since Dec. 30 as the system erroneously reported which pilots would control specific flights, the employees said.

The technology snafu is the latest in a string of miscues that have dogged United parent’s Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc. since the 2010 merger. The issue was amplified by tighter federal limits on pilot duty hours, which took effect Jan. 4 as a winter storm and plunging temperatures thinned pilot ranks at its Chicago and Newark, New Jersey, hubs.

“The company has brought on the perfect storm for our pilots, exacerbating the subzero temps and snow,” Jay Heppner, who heads United’s pilots’ union, wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to members and obtained by Bloomberg News. “In the communications received from our pilots, we are hearing about an operation which is coming apart at the seams.”

Computer issues and new federal duty limits “created a nightmare” for United pilots and crew schedulers, said Christopher Cooke, a spokesman for the union representing United flight attendants.



Scheduling Woes

Crew scheduling woes started after the second-largest U.S. carrier shifted all 10,200 of its pilots to a system previously used only by Continental pilots on Dec. 30, the United employees said.

David Messing, a United spokesman, declined to discuss any issues regarding the change.

“We worked hard to support our pilots as we have made changes to their routines at the same time we have faced unprecedented bad weather,” Messing said in a phone interview. “As we began complying with the new regulations, we were combining our pilot scheduling systems. We are making progress each day in making all of the new processes easier for our crew members.”

Dave Kelly, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said Heppner wasn’t available for an interview.

Pilots said they had difficulty logging on to the system, known as CCS, for Crew Communication System, which shows everything from trip assignments to pay stubs.



Software Crashing

The new technology required three passwords, said a United captain, and was prone to crashing. Once logged on, he found it difficult to navigate and the information that was available was largely out of date. Flights were even assigned to pilots who are retired or deceased. When pilots tried to call for help, they sometimes sat on hold for more than an hour.

Another pilot, based in Chicago, said that every time he logged on to the crew scheduling system in recent days, a different person was listed as the captain of the flight he was supposed to fly.

He had difficulty calling in to the swamped scheduling department to straighten out matters, which caused him to be late on several of the flights, the pilot said.

“The company is field-testing the CCS system on the fly, several months behind schedule, and fixing issues as they arise,” Heppner wrote in the letter to pilots. “At the same time we are switching bidding systems,” adding the new scheduling system and reacting to the realities of the new pilot rest rules.



New Rules

United canceled 1,467 mainline flights from Jan. 1 through Jan. 8, and more than 8,700 when including its regional and commuter airlines, according to flight data analyzer masFlight. Other carriers also scrapped large parts of their schedules as they contended with frigid temperatures in the eastern U.S. and the same new federal restrictions on pilot flying time, known as FAR 117.

JetBlue Airways Corp. said the Jan. 4 start of the new U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rules that regulate work and rest time, was a “complicating factor” in its decision to suspend flights at four northeastern airports for 17 hours earlier this week.

Southwest Airlines Co., pilots reported that the new work rules made it “more difficult to recover from operational difficulties than in the past,” said Mark Richardson, president of their union. The Dallas-based carrier had the most flight cancellations among the five biggest U.S. airlines since the start of the year, according to masFlight.



United’s Challenge

Merging complicated computer systems has been a challenge for United, especially when the shift has been to smaller Continental’s technology platforms.

The airline suffered flight delays, long check-in lines and problems with check-in kiosks in March 2012 after the Apollo passenger reservations system from the old United was switched over to Continental’s Shares program.

Five months later, backup systems failed to prevent a computer network malfunction that disabled communications with airports and United’s website, delaying 580 flights.

Also in 2012, a computer breakdown caused a flight to take off about 20,000 pounds (9,071 kilograms) heavier than pilots believed because the carrier’s weight estimate assumed the coach section of the Boeing Co. 737-900 was empty when it was full, people familiar with the incident said at the time.

In November of that year, a computerized system that coordinates preflight activities across the U.S. failed for about two hours. At least 523 United flights were delayed, according to online data service FlightStats.com



‘Stable and Reliable’

United has worked to improve its on-time performance and make its operations more efficient as it moves past the merger struggle. The carrier aims to trim costs by $2 billion through 2017 as it shifts flying to fuel-sipping aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and boosts employee productivity.

“Our team’s performance year-to-date demonstrates that our operations are once again stable and reliable,” Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek said on an Oct. 24 conference call, after 78.9 percent of United’s arrivals for the third quarter were on- time.



Editors: Molly Schuetz, Ben Livesey. To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Johnsson in Chicago at jjohnsson@bloomberg.net; Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at maryc.s@bloomberg.net; Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at edufner@bloomberg.net

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