Some airlines track delays and cancellations associated with computer outages internally to identify patterns and recurring issues that need fixing. The industry as a whole might benefit if it shared such data. But don't hold your breath on that happening.
U.S. airlines suffered through one technology malfunction a month on average between January 2015 and today, according to a federal government study.
The report released last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office was prompted by several high-profile outages, such as a three day failure in 2016 that cost Delta about $150 million in revenue.
The report tried to quantify the issue in more detail. Officials spoke with 13 U.S. airlines and leading tech vendors Amadeus and Sabre about the issues. They pinpointed 34 information technology outages from 2015 through 2017, most of which led to flight delays or cancellations. The report noted in a footnote that it counted nine additional glitches between January 2018 through January 2019.
“Airline IT systems are fiendishly complex, usually legacy systems layered on top of each other,” said Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift Airline Weekly. “When these systems fail, the results can be hugely disruptive, especially as airlines — and passengers — become more reliant on technology.”
No Action Plan
The report declined to advocate for rules requiring airlines to quantify how often hiccups in airline tech systems cause flight cancelations and disruptions.
“Right now there’s no requirement that airlines disclose if an issue is the result of an IT outage,” said Paul Jibrail, a consultant at Sungard AS, an IT services and disaster recovery provider. “While some do proactively, there’s no clear view on the scope of the problem.”
Some airline executives said it could be difficult to assign blame. For example, an outage in a flight dispatch system could cause hours-long delays for subsequent flights. However, if delays cause flight crews to be on duty beyond the flight time allowable by regulation, there may be a scramble to find substitute flight crews. That scramble might further extend the effects of an outage without explicitly being caused by it.
“Many airlines and tech vendors have been slow to unify their base systems with their satellite systems which, from a software engineering standpoint, would be a best practice to reduce issues,” said Amy Sexton, a travel software consultant based in Denver. “But the complexity of airline systems will always pose problems, and you have to focus on rapid recovery as much as prevention.”
The report said the lack of data prevented officials from discovering any patterns in the system failures. It didn’t find, for instance, if inadequate redundancies in power supplies or other ways of coping with surging volumes were repeated issues.
The report’s authors suggest the problem may be limited. Consumers only filed 140 complaints specifically citing airline tech outages as impacting them to the U.S. Department of Transportation between 2015 through 2017. In comparison, the agency received between 17,000 and 21,000 complaints per year during that timeframe. As further context, Delta Air Lines handles 15,000 flights daily.
Spokespeople for tech vendors Amadeus and Sabre and a few major airlines declined to comment on the report.
On April 29, Sabre’s core reservation system, SabreSonic, briefly failed. The company apologized to customers, including American Airlines and JetBlue. More recently, on May 14, JetBlue reported that SabreSonic went down. Sabre blamed one of its connectivity suppliers, CenturyLink, for the hiccup.
In 2017 rival provider Amadeus suffered a “network failure” in its Altea passenger service system that made it difficult for travelers to check in at airports worldwide briefly.
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Photo credit: Flight delays are displayed at Heathrow Airport in 2013. Airline information technology systems are prone to the occasional hiccup. Sean O'Neill / Skift