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The skies become not-so-friendly when airline IT systems fail, resulting in massive delays and cancellations. You may have heard about Southwest’s and Delta's network outages over the past month. Both incidents left thousands of passengers with missed flights and stranded at the airport.

Outages like these can lead to outrage. Most carriers have improved their check-in processes by adding kiosks or online check-in, but their reservation systems run on outdated technology.

How Old Is the Technology That Airlines Use?

Many major airlines use Transaction Processing Facility (TPF); an IBM system created in the 1960s. When a power outage occurs, TPF won't sync with more modern information systems. This is what causes the flight delays or cancellations. If that's not enough of a headache, employees have to use unintuitive, antiquated systems to assist passengers.

According to Reuters, U.S. and Canada-based airlines plan on spending about 3% of their earnings on technology. Healthcare firms plan on spending 4%, and commercial financial institutions estimate 8% by comparison. This begs the question, “Why would airlines hesitate to upgrade their technology?” Perhaps they don't want to risk a network overhaul leading to a system failure during the transition?

Southwest Airlines Aircraft

What Should Airlines Do?

It would benefit the airlines and their passengers to establish a (tested and functioning?) backup system. Operating backup systems would help avoid or at least minimize the effects of catastrophes like this. In the past, switching to another airline might have been an option. But as Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal mentioned in their letters to major carriers, many interline agreements that used to allow this are no longer in place, further exasperated by the mergers of airlines we've seen in the past decade.

What Was the Impact Caused by These Recent Outages?

  • 2300 Southwest flights canceled
  • 2100 Delta flights canceled

During the Delta outage, passengers in Los Angeles and San Francisco were shuttled off the plane and back into the terminal with water and blankets. In Las Vegas, some people slept on the floor by the gates while they were waiting for an update on the situation.

Delta Air Lines Aircraft

During the week of the incident, Delta waived the change fees for any Monday or Tuesday flight that rebooked by Friday, August 12. They also offered $200 in vouchers to passengers who had to wait more than 3 hours on Monday.

Southwest passengers could rebook within two weeks after the incident. They paid the same rate as they did when they booked the original flight. The airline provided customers who waited two or more hours a one-time 50% off promo code.

Final Take

Two of the largest U.S. airlines experienced system outages during the summer. Concerning, especially during high volume months July and August. Will the airlines upgrade their systems to prevent similar disruptions in the future? Time well tell.

When you’re getting ready for a flight, it would be a good idea to pack with the possibility of an outage in mind. Even if you just bring another change of clothes or a neck pillow, it could minimize your discomfort in a sticky situation like this. Take some advice from the Boy Scouts, be prepared.

Sources: Reuters, Senator Ed Markey

What Can We Learn From Recent Airline IT System Outages?
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