Are Airline Systems Crashing More, Or Does It Just Seem That Way?

Image courtesy of Skip Nyegard

It feels like every week brings news of another massive outage of some airline’s computer network, resulting in grounded flights and stranded passengers. However, a new report suggests that it’s not that these networks are failing more frequently, so much as it is that the outages are now affecting more people — and those people now have all new venues for airing their grievances publicly.

Not that long ago, American consumers had many more airlines. In just the last decade, companies like Northwest, Continental, U.S. Airways, and AirTran have all vanished thanks to mergers with competing carriers. What hasn’t always disappeared through this consolidation process are the outdated networks that keep track of everything from reservations through baggage.

As Bloomberg Businessweek explains, now that you have so few airlines using a hodge-podge of antiquated networks, a single outage can have a ripple effect that affects a huge number of travelers.

At the same time, consumers now have myriad ways to immediately let the world know that they won’t be getting home anytime soon. The chorus of angry Tweets and Facebook updates guarantees that everyone — even those who have no reason to care about air travel problems — is aware of an outage.

Just in the last six months, glitches have foiled travel plans and cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars:

  • Thousands of travelers had their flights delayed by a glitch in Southwest’s systems in July, with passengers left with the impossible choice of renting cars for a 12-hour drive or sleeping in the airport.
  • In August, a power outage in Atlanta caused a systems outage for Delta that grounded most of its flights.
  • A Transportation Safety Administration glitch in May 2016 took a baggage-screening system offline, stranding thousands of bags at the Phoenix airport. Passengers weren’t directly affected, but did arrive at their destinations without their luggage.
  • British Airways passengers in September weren’t able to check in, and some of them had the strange experience of receiving hand-written boarding passes. Flights were fine and operating normally otherwise: checkin and ticketing were the problems.
  • Problems with the weight reporting system at United delayed flights across the airline’s whole system in October.
  • Travel software company Sabre’s outage caused online booking problems for Southwest, Virgin, and JetBlue in October.
  • A one-hour outage at United two weeks ago led to cascading delays across all of United’s flights.
  • Just last week, Delta canceled hundreds of flights due to a Sunday night systems outage. Compounding the possible cancellations and delays was the problem that travelers weren’t able to look up whether their flight was canceled or delayed, because that’s the system that was out.