If you had a ticket on Delta Air Lines last week, maybe your flight was delayed a few hours. You better get used to it. Flight delays because of a "technology issue" are becoming the new normal for air travelers.
Passengers vented on social media.
Earlier this year in my Washington Post column, I noted that it wasn't a question of if, but when another information technology (IT) disaster would strike. The number of technology-related outages among domestic airlines has risen unevenly during the past decade, from three in 2007 to six in 2017, with the highest number being 11 in 2015.
I hate it when I'm right.
IT problems seem to be growing. And while the causes are complex, the contingency plan is as simple as ever. When an airline cancels your flight and blames technology, you can't accept it with a shrug.
Technology "issues" are getting worse
More than one-third of passengers (34 percent) said they would not book another ticket on an airline with a technology-related service disruption, according to
A study conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Sungard AS, a global IT services company, noted that just a single outage can drive away a significant number of customers. More than one-third of passengers (34 percent) said they would not book another ticket on an airline with a technology-related service disruption, according to Sungard AS.
It's a worldwide problem. Earlier this month, for example, Pakistan International Airlines reportedly delayed its flights after its entire booking system "went down." Turns out the carrier was switching to a new Turkish web-based product appropriately named "HITIT." In August, Spirit Airlines experienced a system-wide service interruption, which prevented it from checking in passengers. And in June, American Airlines suffered a service outage after a "serious" computer problem. More on that in a minute.
Delta's IT problem remains something of a mystery. At 8:28 p.m., the airline announced that its IT teams were "working diligently" to address a technology issue affecting some of its systems. "We have issued a Delta ground stop as we work to bring systems back up as quickly as possible," the airline said. "There has been no disruption or safety issue with any Delta flight currently in the air."
By 9:20 p.m., Delta announced that it had restored all IT systems, blaming the flight delays on a "technology issue" that "briefly affected some systems this evening."
And it apologized.
What's causing these technology glitches?
"While the root cause of each occurrence varies, IT issues among the travel industry can be attributed to several overarching factors," says Michael Levine, a senior associate at Schellman & Company, an independent security and privacy compliance assessor.
Airlines don't like to spend a lot of money on technology, so their systems are antiquated before they receive long-overdue upgrades, say experts.
"The complex nature between many integrated systems -- reservations, flight scheduling, staff scheduling, and so forth -- can lead to breaks in the chain."
"The complex nature between many integrated systems -- reservations, flight scheduling, staff scheduling, and so forth -- can lead to breaks in the chain," says Levine. "Airlines often work with regional subsidiaries, which means that they are affected by their IT infrastructure and outages as well."
That's what happened with American Airlines in June. PSA Airlines, a regional subsidiary of American, had a hardware issue with one of its staff scheduling systems. "It appears there might not have been a proper backup system in place, so the outage lasted a lot longer than necessary," says Levine.
It's not just technology. The major airlines have made sufficient investment in redundant systems on multiple networks, says Brian Gill, the CEO of Gillware Data Recovery. They have "incredibly redundant" storage arrays where the transactional databases running all their operations reside, and that data is backed up in near real-time to multiple locations and private clouds.
"The weak point in the chain," he explains, "is humans."
Employees and contractors aren't adequately trained to monitor the system or to ward off cybercrime.
"It only takes one human to do something incredibly ignorant or stupid," says Gill. The mistakes range from a programmer handling data insecurely or a marketing executive uploading client data into an unsafe third-party app.
"It takes a serious commitment from the highest level of executives to spend intelligently and adequately, to deter possibilities of major outages or data breaches," he says.