Complexity makes airline computer systems vulnerable

David Koenig
Associated Press

Twice in less than a month, a major airline was paralyzed by a computer outage that prevented passengers from checking in and flights from taking off.

Last month, it took Southwest days to recover from a breakdown it blamed on a faulty router. On Monday, it was Delta’s turn, as a power outage crippled the airline’s information technology systems and forced it to cancel or delay hundreds of flights. Delta employees had to write out boarding passes by hand, and at one airport they resurrected a dot-matrix printer from the graveyard of 1980s technology.

Why do these kinds of meltdowns keep happening?

The answer is that airlines depend on huge, overlapping and complex IT systems to do just about everything, from operating flights to handling ticketing, boarding, websites and mobile-phone apps. And after years of rapid consolidation in the airline business, these computer systems may be a hodgepodge of parts of varying ages and from different merger partners.

These systems are also being worked harder, with new fees and options for passengers, and more transactions — Delta’s traffic has nearly doubled in a decade.

“These old legacy systems are operating much larger airlines that are being accessed in many, many more ways,” said Daniel Baker, CEO of tracking service FlightAware.com.

The result: IT failures that can inconvenience tens of thousands of passengers and create long-lasting ill will.

It is unclear exactly what went wrong at Delta. The airline said it suffered a power outage at an Atlanta installation around 2:30 a.m. that caused many of its computer systems to fail. But the electric company, Georgia Power, said that it was not to blame and that the equipment failure was on Delta’s end.

IT experts questioned whether Delta’s network was adequately prepared for the inevitable breakdown.

“One piece of equipment going out shouldn’t cause this,” said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at software-analysis firm Cast. “It’s a bit shocking.”

Curtis said IT systems should be designed so that when a part fails, its functions automatically switch over to a backup, preferably in a different location. “And if I had a multibillion-dollar business running on this, I would certainly want to have some kind of backup power,” he added.

IT problems are not unique to airlines. There have been high-profile breaches and breakdowns at banks and retailers. Airlines have particular challenges because their systems are constantly undergoing changes and additions, including automation to handle the large volume of transactions with customers.