Delta Outage Raises Questions About Airline Computing Systems

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The massive Delta Air Lines outage that left thousands of flights cancelled last week raises questions about the computing systems used by airlines, travel experts say.

The three-day ordeal began last Monday when a power outage and a small fire caused Delta to switch to a backup data center, but some essential systems didn’t transfer as smoothly and crashed. The airline, as a result, was forced to cancel more than 2,100 flights.

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Because airline reservation systems and operating systems are now linked–to support such conveniences as ticketless travel, for example–it’s crucial to have backup systems activate so that if one goes down, the whole airline doesn’t go down, said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service and director of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. 

“CEOs are in the hot seat to show they have backup systems, and this summer’s been a tough wake-up call,” Schwieterman said.

The exact cost associated with the outage isn’t known, but a similar problem experience by Southwest Airlines in July cost the Dallas-based company at least $54 million in lost revenue.

As to what measures airlines can take to modernize or change the technology they're using, Schweiterman said the ability to respond quickly–and keep things moving–is key.

“We’re seeing that these backup systems have to be tested more. We’re also seeing that airlines need a plan B,” Schwieterman said. “The thinking is now that when systems do go down, we have to have some method to get these plans in the air so we’re not, in effect, grounding the whole system. We may have to go to more manual processes when all else fails. Delta learned the hard way.”

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