Are More Airline Outages Inevitable? Some Experts Think So

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In just the past two weeks, two major airlines have suffered massive technical glitches, bringing their operations to a screeching halt, canceling thousand of flights, and stranding thousands of passengers. But a new report suggests that even more devastating glitches are likely to happen thanks in part to an aging U.S. airline reservation system technology. 

Security experts warned on Friday that glitches like that suffered by Delta Air Lines this week, and Southwest Airlines last week, are inevitable unless carriers spend the money to upgrade their systems, Reuters reports.

While the airlines have concentrated on streamlining their reservation system with automated check-in kiosks, real-time luggage tracking, and other innovations, they haven’t put the same effort into actually rebuilding their entire reservation system.

For the most part, Reuters reports, airline reservation systems run on an outdated 1960s IBM operating system known as Transaction Processing Facility.

The system was last updated nearly 10 years ago to add features like check-ins and seat selections. However, those additions were simply added to the top of the core processor.

“They have surrounded that old industry infrastructure with modern technology,” Bob Edwards, who previously served as United Continental Holdings Inc’s former chief information officer, tell Reuters. “Those systems have to always reach back into the old core technologies to retrieve a reservation or to figure out who flies between Dallas and New York City.”

Because of this, when a power outage — or other issues like a fire — shuts off the reservation system, TPF falls out of sync with new services meant to assist passengers.

At that point there’s little an airline can do other than cancel or delay flights.

Part of the reason for this delay in rebuilding the system stems from the fact that just a few years ago most airlines weren’t doing well.

“Most airlines were on the verge of going out of business for many years, so investment of any kind had to have short pay-back periods,” Scott Nason, former chief information officer at American Airlines Group Inc, tells Reuters.

Another factor in the delayed updates is simply profits, with some security experts noting that spending by major airlines is no sufficient.

Additionally, fear of an outage itself has also kept some airlines from upgrading systems, Reuters reports. Instead of taking the chance that a failure would occur during a network upgrade, many carriers have simply added patches or performed other maintenance repairs to the systems.

Still, experts say in the long run this behavior could cause more outages over time.

“We cannot afford, as a nation, for any of our airlines to be rendered useless by a technology failure,” Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group, tells Reuters. “When fuel prices are low and there’s extra cash on hand, they want to spend it on the cool shiny things like planes and mobile apps. Nobody gets excited about the data center.”

More airline outages seen as carriers grapple with aging technology [Reuters]