IT Hiccups of the Week: Sabre Outage Hit Flights Worldwide

False emergency warnings and Xerox scanners compression error issue

Advertisement

It’s been another eventful week in the land of IT snags, snarls and complications. We start with another major airline reservation system hiccup, but this time one with world-wide effects.

Sabre Reservation System Outage Affects 400 Airlines

The Sabre airline reservation system experienced a still unexplained two-hour-plus “system issue” beginning at 8:40 p.m. PDT on Monday evening. The outage affected airlines around the world. (Sabre’s website states that about 380 airlines use its reservation system.) As a result, ticket agents needed to hand write boarding passes, and the affected airlines’ websites couldn’t book or change reservations.  Where in the world you happened to be at the time impacted how severely you felt the system outage.

In the U.S., a small number of late-night West Coast domestic and international flights experienced delays. In Europe and the Middle East, the effects were felt a bit more, as it was early to mid morning. The greatest problems were felt in Australia, where it was early afternoon Sidney time. Virgin Australia got the worst of it.

Virgin Australia reportedly had to cancel 35 domestic and international flights and delay many others.  For whatever reason, Virgin seems snake-bit when it comes to reservation system IT issues. This complication came on the heels of a router outage that occurred just a few weeks ago. You may remember its nearly two week reservation meltdown back in 2010, as well. Virgin moved from Navitaire’s New Skies platform, which was at the heart of the 2010 meltdown, to the Sabre system earlier this year. The costs incurred in the switch helped send the company into the red.

Although the exact number of passengers affected is unknown, it was undoubtedly thousands worldwide given that Sabre says some 300 million passenger reservations are processed by its system every year. On Tuesday, in the wake of the outage, Sabre sent out the standard, “We apologize and regret the inconvenience caused.”

Denver International Airport officials were also apologizing on Tuesday to passengers as all 1200 airport flight boards were out for most of the day.Maintenance had been performed on the system that runs the flight boards on Monday night. The boards were not restored to operation until late Tuesday evening.

False Emergency Warnings Sent in Japan, Virginia, California

The Japan Meteorological Agency sent an emergency message last Thursday warning most of Japan to expect “violent shaking” after detecting a magnitude-2.3 earthquake in Wakayama prefecture in western Japan at 4:56 pm local time, Bloomberg News reported. According to the story, the Wakayama earthquake prompted JMA’s warning system to predict that a magnitude 7.8 earthquake was possible.

As a result of the warning, Central Japan Railway suspended some bullet train operations, and a number of mobile phone networks became jammed as a multitude of people called friends and family.

However, it soon became clear that the prediction was in error. The JMA blamed the false warning on “electrical noise” on the ocean floor, and offered a televised apology. The JMA admitted Thursday's incorrect warning to be the “biggest misreading” since the early warning system was begun in 2007.

On Wednesday morning, human error was blamed for a tornado alert mistakenly being sent to 500 people in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area of Virginia, the AP reported. Apparently the notification was sent during a training session on how to use the local emergency alert system.

Also on Wednesday, a real emergency alert of a reported gas leak was sent to more people than intended. The automated wireless emergency alert message, which urged residents and businesses to evacuate immediately and only take essential belongings with them, was sent out across all of Contra Costa County, California, instead of the homes and businesses within a 1000 foot radius of a damaged gas pipe. County officials said that they would be working with the vendor the county uses to send alerts to ensure that the messages are better targeted, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Xerox to Patch Scanner Feature

I doubt many people would think to look at a document they scanned to check whether in fact what was scanned actually match that as on the original. It might be a good idea to do so in the future, however.

Last week, a story Tuesday at BBC News reported that German computer scientist David Kessel  “discovered” that the compression software used by several Xerox scanner models had the nasty habit of changing the characters in the scanned document from those on the original document. The Daily Mail published an article showing some of the changes that could result.  The legal implications, a London lawyer told the BBC, were “Interesting.”

Xerox played down the error, however, saying that the vast majority of scanner users would never experience the problem since it only happened when the scanner's default resolution setting was reset to low resolution in order to save smaller-sized computer files.  The character changing/substitution issue was long known to be a possibility, and a warning about it was in all its user manuals, Xerox said. However, in light of the uproar the BBC News story generated—which was also fueled by Xerox’s nonchalant response to the issue—Xerox said it would be sending out a patch in the next few weeks to disable the highest compression mode which it claimed would eliminate the problem.

Even so, it might be a good idea to routinely check over your scanned documents just in case, and also maybe read  your scanner’s user manual. There may actually be something useful in it.

Also of Interest…

Navy Explains Why the USS Guardian Got Stuck on “Misplaced” Philippine Reef

BATS Exchange Experiences Another Outage

New Zealand Vodafone's Data Networks Problems Affect Mobile EFTPOS

X-Ray Computer System Problems Continue Unabated in Kent, England

Wisconsin State Government Recovering From Computer Crash

Los Angeles Fire Department 911 System Repeatedly Breaks Down

Japanese Luxury Toilet Has Computer Hardware Flaw

Photo: iStockphoto

The Computing Technology Newsletter

Biweekly newsletter about advances in hardware, software and systems.

About the Risk Factor blog

IEEE Spectrum’s risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.